Cory Booker: The Awkward Spartacus
Cory Booker, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, used to be a very credible presidential general election contender, though perhaps not nominate-able in the modern Democratic party.
The criticism of Barack Obama during his successful 2008 campaign—a neophyte with no executive experience, no record of reaching across the aisle, a rigid ideologue—couldn’t have been said of Booker circa 2013, when he was first elected senator in a special election.
As mayor of Newark, he’d cultivated an image of a pragmatic problem solver, ready to work with the Republican governor Chris Christie when it helped his constituents, collaborating with then-school choice activist Betsy DeVos to improve opportunities for children in his city, and defending capitalism against rhetorical attacks by the Obama re-election campaign. As a senator, he even teamed up with Senator Jeff Sessions.
It wasn’t really until 2017—when being in the #Resistance appeared the only path to the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020—that Booker began to turn into something different: a non-credible presidential general election contender, but a nominate-able Democrat.
Booker’s recent statement to New York Magazine, “Of course the presidency will be something I consider. It would be irresponsible not to,” is only the latest ridiculous thing that he’s said. Indeed, it’s difficult to know what’s more outlandish—that he thinks he has a responsibility to offer himself as president or that he says he’s only considering it.
Had it not been for the late-breaking accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, the most memorable moment from the recent Supreme Court confirmation process would have been the “Spartacus moment” that turned Booker into a political parody.
It’s true that what we consider a credible presidential contender has changed significantly since Donald Trump’s election. Democrats might well nominate Tom Steyer in 2020 for an epic Battle of the Billionaires, or Mark Cuban, or someone else unconventional. But it’s also true that the safer wager is to pick a conventional politician to run against Trump: Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and so on.
Booker could still win that nomination. The first Democratic primary is well over a year away (more than enough time for the average voter to forget Spartacus). And Booker is a very skilled politician. The problem is that he still has a major hill to climb.
We don’t know whether Booker was ever a genuine pragmatist. It could be that he didn’t want to be a big city mayor for life, so pragmatism was the ticket to a Senate seat. Yet to win his party’s presidential nomination, moderation will not work when resist and obstruct are in fashion. So Booker has now converted to the fringe left, though he doesn’t seem particularly comfortable there.
During the special election in 2013, The Atlantic ran a headline, “Why Do Liberals Hate Cory Booker?” The article quoted Salon calling Booker “an avatar of the wealthy elite, a camera hog, and a political cipher.” The New Republic, meanwhile, accused him of “agitating for the cause of himself.” And Daily Kos claimed he “would actually be much more at home in the Republican Party.”
One of the reasons for the left’s visceral reaction was that during the 2012 presidential campaign, Booker came mighty close to siding with Republican Mitt Romney on a narrow issue. When the Obama campaign relentlessly attacked Romney’s time heading Bain Capital, Booker said it was “nauseating to the American public,” itself a somewhat melodramatic term.
“As far as that stuff, I have to just say from a very personal level I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity,” Booker said on Meet the Press. “To me, it’s just we’re getting to a ridiculous point in America. Especially that I know I live in a state where pension funds, unions, and other people invest in companies like Bain Capital. If you look at the totality of Bain Capital’s record, they’ve done a lot to support businesses [and] to grow businesses. And this, to me, I’m very uncomfortable with.”
That same year, Booker—who at the time served with DeVos on the board of Alliance for School Choice—delivered a stirring defense at the 2012 American Federation for Children. He said:
I cannot ever stand up and stand against a parent having options, because I benefited from my parents having options. And when people tell me they’re against school choice, whether it’s the Opportunity Scholarship Act or charter schools, I look at them and say: “As soon as you’re telling me you’re willing to send your kid to a failing school in my city, or in Camden or Trenton, then I’ll be with you.”
I’m going to be out there fighting for my president, but he does not send his kids to Washington, D.C., public schools. I got a governor in the statehouse, he does not send his kids to Trenton public schools. I could go all the way down to city council people in Newark, that do not send their kids—so what have we created? A system that if you’re connected, elected, have wealth and privilege, you get freedom in this country? And now you want to deny that to my community? No. I am going to fight for the freedom and the liberty and the choice and the options of my people, in the same way you will defend that right for yourself.
As a senator in in 2016, he teamed up with Senator Jeff Sessions to ensure that the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the 1965 civil rights marchers from Selma.
Then Trump got elected and Booker realized he no longer had to wait eight years to run for president.
So he vocally opposed the nomination of DeVos to serve as education secretary, though he said he hadn’t abandoned school choice—perhaps because it would have looked patently silly if he had. He was the first sitting senator to testify against a colleague during Sessions’ confirmation hearing for attorney general.
He had shown definite flair for melodrama before, but during the Kavanaugh hearing he dialed it up. Even though the committee had already disclosed a set of documents on Kavanaugh, Booker invoked Spartacus and said he would release them himself. To underscore his own profound courage, he said, “I understand the penalty comes with potential ousting from the Senate.”
Even former Obama strategist David Axelrod has said Booker “sacrifices a sense of authenticity” for “performance.”
Most of the public presumes that politicians are phonies and liars anyway. Perhaps having given up on honesty, they are at least looking for some genuineness. They determined Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz were trying too hard, but fell (or almost fell) for the more genuine—if not always truthful—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
In this respect, Booker seems like the last guy Democrats would want running against Trump, who would easily come up with nicknames: “Phony Cory,” “Lying Booker.”
Then again, the president’s barrage of tweets and various other unpredictable distractions have proven trying even for his supporters. That might well prompt just enough voters to long for those predictable days of disciplined politicians who rehearse and memorize their lines, void of any spontaneity. If that’s the case, Booker might just shine after all.
Fred Lucas is the White House correspondent for the Daily Signal and author of Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections. The views expressed are solely his own. Title and publications are listed are for identification purposes only.