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Can Cory Booker Win Over Progressives?

The rising star seemed destined to be a 2020 contender. But the populist wave and Trump resistance threaten to stall his ascent.

YURI GRIPAS/Getty Images

Cory Booker would get to the subject of President Donald Trump and the resistance. He would get to the disunited Democratic Party and his vision for its future. But the New Jersey senator began the closing keynote of the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference last Tuesday with a story about Alice in Wonderland and his mother. He had recently watched her play the Red Queen in her retirement community’s production of the Lewis Carroll classic, and was moved by one of her character’s famous lines. After Alice declares, “one can’t believe impossible things,” the queen responds, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice then.... Why, sometimes I’ve believed in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Booker had lots to say about the impossible on Tuesday. He quoted James Baldwin: “I know what I’m asking you is impossible, but in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least we can demand.” He spoke of “an impossible dream in America that has yet to be made real.” It was an earnest and emotional speech about finding light in a time of darkness, and it set Booker apart from several other senators—and potential 2020 presidential candidates—who gave speeches that day. Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris each gave shorter remarks, focused on their pet issues of paid leave and criminal justice reform, respectively. Elizabeth Warren delivered the lunch keynote, railing righteously, as she always does, against concentrated money and power in politics. None of them held the crowd’s attention like Booker.

Booker’s rousing rhetoric is a key reason he’s considered a 2020 contender, but his crowd-pleasing performance on Tuesday belied the hostility he’d face in a Democratic primary. A neoliberal who’s cozy with the monied elites of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, he’s distrusted by many on the left. “He’s a non-starter right now,” Markos Moulitsas, founder of the influential liberal website Daily Kos, told me. “He hasn’t proven his ability to distance himself from the Wall Street and Big Pharma interests that have basically been the bedrock of his support.”

Booker’s defenders have long refuted this criticism. He has taken on the financial industry in the Senate, most recently by opposing the attempted rollback of Wall Street regulations and an Obama Labor Department retirement-savings rule finalized last year. Nor is Booker as centrist as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, another blue-state 2020 prospect. But in this populist moment, as some progressives demand ideological purity from Democrats, Moulitsas’s widely held criticism might be enough to sink Booker’s chances in 2020.

There’s also the problem of Booker’s brand, which is perhaps best described as positivity politics: He embraces bipartisanship, and refuses to vilify his political opponents. His warm and generous spirit would be welcome under normal political circumstances, but his style has lost currency under a unified Republican government, as the Democratic base demands outright obstruction. Booker has shown of late, albeit haltingly, that he can move left with the times. But could he be convincing as a more combative progressive, or would his reputation overwhelm his rhetoric? More importantly, would doing so erase what makes Booker unique—the very qualities that enabled his swift ascent to national stardom, and which no doubt would serve him well in a general election against Donald Trump?

As mayor of Newark, New Jersey, from 2006 to 2013, he became a political celebrity thanks to his social media savvy and self-publicized acts of heroism, like saving a woman from a burning building. But the further he rose, the more critics he faced from the left.

“Cory Booker Is Even Worse Than His Critics Say,” the New Republic declared after he won the 2013 Democratic primary for Senate. “What Booker has in mind when he alludes to being an agitator is agitating for the cause of himself,” Noam Scheiber wrote. “Booker shares a worldview with the financial elites who fund his campaigns. If one can deduce from his record and his public statements, he believes the economy functions best when wealthy people are allowed to deploy their capital freely, and that progress ensues when they train some of their gains on society’s ills.”

That same year, The Atlantic’s Molly Ball asked the question, Why Do Liberals Hate Cory Booker?

What Booker’s critics mainly take issue with are his associations, his persona, and unprovable allegations about his “worldview.” Exhibit A is always Booker’s notorious appearance on Meet the Press in May 2012, in which he called the Obama campaign’s attacks on private equity “nauseating” and pleaded for more civility in the campaign. Booker subsequently attempted to clarify that he supported the specific critiques of Mitt Romney’s record that had been leveled, but for some liberals, the betrayal was complete and irreversible. “When the predatory nature of America’s business elites threatened to become an actual political issue, Cory Booker leaped to salve the wounded fee-fees of the crooks,” Esquire’s Charlie Pierce wrote this month. “Which is why I would not vote for Cory Booker.”

None of this derailed Booker’s political rise. He won his 2013 special election for Senate by 10 points, and won re-election a year later by 13. Hillary Clinton considered him to be her running mate last year, and he gave a well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention. “We cannot be seduced by cynicism about our politics, because cynicism is a refuge for cowards, and this nation is and must always be the home of the brave,” he declared, with obvious echoes of then-Senator Barack Obama’s convention speech 12 years earlier. “We will not falter or fail. We will not retreat or surrender our values. We will not surrender our ideas. We will not surrender the moral high ground. Here in Philadelphia, let us declare again that we will be a free people. Free from fear and intimidation. Let us declare, again, that we are a nation of interdependence, and that in America, love always trumps hate. Let us declare, so that generations yet unborn can hear us. We are the United States of America. Our best days are ahead of us.”

That speech had some wishing Booker were accepting the nomination rather than Clinton, but the Trump era has brought renewed scrutiny of his record from progressives. Like all of his Democratic colleagues and even two Republican senators, Booker voted against the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But he was rightly called out for hypocrisy, given that he previously worked with DeVos to promote “school choice” policies, including private school vouchers. Booker also voted against an affordable drug proposal from Senator Bernie Sanders, before ultimately backing a compromise bill. Booker said his initial opposition was based on the need for safety provisions, but critics weren’t buying it. “This is silly, given that Americans already import drugs from Canada illegally and it hasn’t resulted in a public health emergency,” argued the New Republic’s Alex Shephard. “Similarly, the Canadian drug industry doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being dangerous.” Vox’s Jeff Stein wrote that “while it’s true that his vote may have had more to do with the concentration of the pharmaceutical industry in his home state, it’s also only served to confirm some progressives’ suspicions that he’s too closely allied with corporate interests in the Democratic Party.”

Much of the criticism of Booker is still about tone. Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign committee said Booker has been getting better over the years, but still needs to do more:

One of the biggest issues some people had with Cory Booker over the years is an unwillingness to name villains—which is an essential part of story telling and which Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders do very well. Unfortunately, Trump did this in 2016 and sold people on the idea that their economic pain was the result of immigrants and other races as opposed to corporate CEOs who aren’t sharing wealth with workers. Fortunately, Booker has begun to be more aggressive in the Trump era, and it’s a pending question as to whether he will be willing to call out Wall Street bank CEO’s for defrauding millions of Americans and hurting our economy. We shall see, but things are progressing.

Moulitsas argues anyone thinking about 2020 needs to catch up with the grassroots—or ideally get ahead of them—when it comes to stopping Trump and the Republican Congress. He foresees a massive field of Democratic candidates: “I’m absolutely convinced that we’re going to have an embarrassment of riches.” That means progressives “don’t need to settle for second best. Our bench is growing,” he said. “The reason I’m even taking a call about 2020 is because Democrats today need to think about what 2019 looks like. The first question anybody in the resistance is going to ask is where was this person in 2017? If they weren’t with us in 2017, that will make it really easy to whittle down that list.... You’re either with the resistance today or I would say don’t even bother running.”

Booker sees himself as very much with the resistance. He took a big stand against his colleague Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general, joining Representative John Lewis to testify against him. In January, NJ Advance Media called Booker “a leading voice of dissent in the Democratic Party as the Donald Trump era begins,” adding, “It’s a sudden turn of events for a lawmaker who arrived at the U.S. Capitol with a reputation for liking the spotlight but instead sought to hide from its glare, working quietly with members of both parties to advance legislation and using his celebrity status to help elect more Senate Democrats.” At CAP on Tuesday, Booker said, “I want to fight in this climate. I want to dedicate myself. But we cannot just be a party of resistance—we’ve got to be a party that’s reaffirming that American dream.”

Booker has long preached unity and transcendence. Progressives may want him to “name villains,” but he told Salon in 2013, I don’t believe in wholesale vilification of any industry in the United States.” The title of his book last year says it all: United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good. He’s worked across the aisle for good, as with his work on criminal justice reform with Senator Rand Paul, and for ill, as with his corporate school reform efforts in Newark with Governor Chris Christie and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Last summer, in a sign that he sees Booker as a political threat, Trump attacked the senator’s impassioned convention speech:

Booker responded neither with snark nor insult, instead telling Trump, “I love you, I just don’t want you to be my president.”

Booker has long been compared to Obama, for reasons both lazy and legitimate. Their race aside, they’re both gifted orators who call for healing divisions, building bridges, overcoming political cynicism and partisan rancor—in other words, they evangelize for hope. They’re also not easy to pin down ideologically, and have angered their fair share of progressives and centrists. Tad Devine, who served as Bernie Sanders’s senior strategist last year, said any comparisons to Obama would serve Booker well. “I think voters would say they’d like another round of that, thank you very much,” he said.

But the message that worked for Obama in 2008, after eight years of hopeless wars under President George W. Bush, may not work for Booker in 2020, after four years of chaos and incompetence under Trump. If progressives’ mood today is any indication, the Democratic base will demand anger and fiery obstructionism, which is hardly Booker’s style. If he adopted such a persona in the party’s primary, would the Bernie wing believe it? Not likely.

Booker also thinks it’s a mistake for Democrats to “become what we’re trying to replace,” treating Trump and Republicans like the GOP treated Obama. “I literally have these arguments with supporters or fellow Democrats all the time,” he said earlier this month on The Ezra Klein Show, “where they say, ‘Enough with the love and kindness stuff, Cory. We’ve got to fight.’ And I say, ‘When are those mutually exclusive?’.... I think, again, we lose a bit of our moral compass when we are demonizing other people.” He added, “I just don’t believe you need to be mean, you need to be deceitful, you need to practice the dark arts in order to win elected offices.”

Booker may not have to completely transform himself to win the Democratic nomination, either. If he can monopolize support from black voters—which may require outmaneuvering Kamala Harris—and pick up enough moderate Democrats, he could conceivably be the party’s pick to take down Trump. While Booker’s lack of populist bona fides could prove damaging in a general election, too, a constitutional crisis may well override concerns about, say, his Wall Street ties. But even in that scenario, it’s hard to imagine Booker succeeding with his same old message. It’s hard to be both a lover and a fighter—and you certainly can’t kill Trump with kindness.