In Defense of Cory Booker

Liberals, at least some of them, have a problem with Cory Booker, the next senator from the great state of New Jersey. I've certainly heard it privately, and any number of them have written pieces criticizing him (see here or here for good examples). As Molly Ball points out at The Atlantic, this antipathy doesn't seem to come from the positions Booker takes or a critique of his record as mayor of Newark. "Most of his policy stances are conventional liberal ones: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, in favor of raising taxes on the rich and increasing government spending on welfare and infrastructure programs." He's perhaps uncomfortably close to Wall Street and Silicon Valley, but that makes him a mainstream Democrat; Booker may be no Paul Wellstone, but he's hardly Joe Lieberman, either. So what's going on?

Beyond the Wall Street connection, the critiques of Booker usually end up amounting to: he's just too slick, and he isn't the populist progressive we'd like him to be. Which is true as far as it goes, but how far does it really go? Yes, Cory Booker is a young man in a hurry. But is he any more ambitious than Barack Obama was in 2006, or than any other politician? People who run for office almost always want to run for higher office; it comes with the territory. Criticizing Booker for being too ambitious is like saying you don't like the third baseman on your local triple-A baseball team because he obviously just wants to make it to the majors.

I think a lot of this comes from the fact that Booker has always seemed like someone who could be president one day. If he was some minimally talented hack looking to log a few years in Congress and then transition smoothly to a seven-figure salary as chief lobbyist for the Association of Noxious Poison Manufacturers, few people would care. It's precisely because he's a very, very good politician that liberals are worried about him. I always think back to a sequence that occurs either in Marshall Curry's excellent 2005 documentary Street Fight or in the 2009 series Brick City (I can't recall which, and I haven't been able to find the clip) in which Booker is shown meeting with one constituency after another, deftly speaking to everyone's concerns and wowing them all with his knowledge of their pet issues and his easy empathy. When he finally gets to a group of rabbis and starts confidently tossing around Yiddish phrases like a yeshiva student, it has become almost comical. He was born to be a politician.

I suspect that as a senator, Booker will probably find a few issues to produce some legislation on so he can plausibly claim to be the kind of guy who gets things done, and spend a lot of time in front of the cameras. Are people going to criticize him for that? I'm sure they will. But again, being a media hound is part of the job; it's what politicians do. If the Democratic presidential nominee loses in 2016, Booker will be ready to run in 2020, when he'll be only 51 years old.

And here's the odd thing: If he does want to run for president, Cory Booker is probably perfectly happy to get some slings and arrows from liberal writers and the Democratic base. In the Republican party, extreme conservatives are actual gatekeepers to the presidential nomination, with a variety of practical levers at their disposal (not to mention sheer numbers) enabling them to torpedo the candidacies of those they don't like or at the very least force an endless ritual of humiliating genuflections (see Romney, Mitt). But it isn't that way in the Democratic party at all. The left has influence, but not only is that influence seriously limited, they don't hold grudges in the same way the Republican base does. A Democrat can start off as the subject of some distrust but eventually be embraced without too much trouble. And once you get to the general election, the lingering memory of some hippies yelling at you is a splendid credential, with independent voters but especially with the establishment media, which is already enamored with Booker.

I'm not saying he doesn't deserve the criticism he has gotten for his defense of Wall Street or that dodgy tech startup he co-founded that seems to be imploding. And someone ought to do a serious, comprehensive look at what Booker did and didn't accomplish as Newark mayor. But the guy's a politician. Nobody should be surprised by that, or assume it's some kind of betrayal of something he never was to begin with.

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