Player Four: Cory Booker rising
For the record, I’m fully aware that more than four Democrats are confirmed to be vying for the presidency. Subsequently, I acknowledge that my titling here is decidedly anti-semantic (a turn of phrase which, coincidentally, I believe is one of my better literary contributions). In my eyes, however, there are just four true Democratic highfliers at this stage of the game: Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker.
It’s Booker I want to focus on here. My issues with the three other aforementioned Democratic candidates warrant an entire other piece, but I’ll briefly summarize them here so we’re clear. My biggest problem with Kirsten Gillibrand is her inconsistency; not too long ago, she boasted an A rating from the NRA and a conservative legislative record. Kamala Harris’s progressive positioning is questionable as well; she’s taken serious hits recently on her criminal justice record (Harris’ records as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California both suggest an unwillingness to embrace or adopt progressive criminal justice reforms). Elizabeth Warren is just flat-out unpopular across all voter demographics – a recent national Quinnipiac poll found her ratings particularly low, and that’s a poor place to start a presidential campaign (during which numbers usually drop even more). The entire brouhaha surrounding Warren’s indigenous ancestry is also a turnoff for me; regardless of what the truth is about her heritage, Warren’s willingness to engage with Trump on that level for something so inconsequential is a red flag.
Enter Cory Booker, the candidate that almost seems too good to be true. Equipped with the captivating ability to tell his uniquely inspiring personal story, Booker has generated a presidential buzz for years. “He is a brilliant guy; big-time personality, interesting thinker, and spellbinding presenter,” writes David Axelrod, former top advisor to President Obama and veteran Democratic strategist. Although later than his contemporaries, Booker enters the race having forged important relationships with elected officials and Democratic operatives in key early states.
Booker’s origin story – the basis of his newly launched campaign – is an established staple of his oratorical arsenal. When Booker’s parents, both pioneering black executives at IBM, tried to move their family to the wealthy New Jersey suburb of Harrington Park, racial discrimination got in the way. They only overcame this housing discrimination when a group of white housing activists worked with them, ultimately forcing the unwilling property owners to sell them a house.
When Booker tells it, this story takes on much more importance than the contextual defiance of justice. In his eyes, it’s a “conspiracy of love,” and he is the “physical manifestation” of the kindness and decency shown by those who helped his family. This, according to his launch video, is how he intends to run his campaign: advocating for love, unity, and bipartisan compromise. All this, of course, while still fighting tirelessly for progressive policy. It’s the same message sent in his 2005 film Street Fight (a must-watch in my opinion – it’s on Netflix).
And that message holds up. Booker has long fought over issues of racial and social justice in the Senate. He played a leading role in the push to pass the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. He supports ending the War on Drugs, abortion rights, affirmative action, and a single-payer health care plan. Fiscally, Booker is in favor of long-term deficit reduction efforts, Cap and Trade taxation (to combat climate change), and increased funding for education. As far as foreign policy goes, Booker has not just unequivocally fought against U.S. involvement in both Afghanistan and Syria, but also supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Atlantic has examined Booker’s voting history and legislative record a grand total of three times, and has found no substantive deviation from progressive policies (except on education reform, where Booker shows openness to the expansion of charter schools and the introduction of merit pay for teachers). Franklin Foer concludes: "The case against Booker seems to rest chiefly on tone and approach. Like Obama, he has positioned himself as a conciliator willing to work across the aisle.”
Of course, Booker has taken a lot of flak recently for some very public decisions. His decision to testify against Jeff Sessions was dramatically overshadowed by his subsequent decision to join the Republican caucus in voting against the Sanders-Klobuchar proposal, legislation which would have allowed Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada (where they are significantly cheaper). While the amendment would have been mostly symbolic – it didn’t actually legalize drug importation from our neighbors – its acceptance would have signaled a Senate ready to consider real action. Booker’s opposition spawned a plethora of attacks on his progressive stance, arguably the most acerbic coming from Jacobin’s Joseph Fronczak, who writes “In the light of day, Cory Booker is fighting the good fight in testifying…but after dark, he’s voting down Sanders’s and Klobuchar’s attempt to provide some shelter for the sick against the wolves from the pharmaceutical industry.”
I wasn’t surprised by Booker’s decision to vote against the Sanders-Klobuchar proposal. I was surprised, however, at how quick to crucify him liberals were afterwards. The truth is, those lambasting Booker for his decision are sensationalizing a fairly rational move. The junior Senator from New Jersey voted to protect his constituents, following a longstanding pattern of elected officials trying to protect the jobs and industries that dominate their home states. “Almost any member of Congress from New Jersey…no matter how liberal or conservative…will be fiercely protective in defense of the pharmaceutical industry,” writes Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. It has nothing to do with donations from Big Pharma. A New Jersey politician voting against pharmaceutical companies would be like a politician from Maine proposing regulations on fisheries, or an Iowa Republican voting against ethanol subsidies.
This outrage over what otherwise seems like a logical decision by Booker highlights serious tension within the Senate right now. As we nationalize politics, members of Congress will be faced with a choice: do they continue to legislate as they always have (with greater concern for the jobs and markets in their own states), or do they defy the industries of their home states in compliance with national party lines? It’s a catch-22, and a headache, especially for those state representatives with national ambition (like Booker).
All this talk of the pharmaceutical industry brings me to another knock against Booker: his connections to Wall Street. If you’re radically anti-capitalist, this may be a nonstarter for you. And fair enough (maybe). The point of this article isn’t to contest Booker’s connections to Wall Street, but to gently suggest that his record indicates an unwavering commitment to liberal ideology. Candidates aren’t evaluated on one issue, especially in the race for the presidency, and my personal principles say that corporate connection is not enough to discount anyone out of hand. “It’s perplexing,” Mollie Conley writes, “that normal politician activities, like raising money and being ambitious, are seen as uniquely damning in [Booker’s] case.”
We scrutinize and value politicians’ legislative records as closely as we do for a reason: we want to ensure not only that they represent our shared values and beliefs, but that they will continue to do so predictably if elected. Booker has proven himself on that account. It’s a long road to the presidency of course, and he has a way to go to convince America that he is the right man for the job, but I’m more than confident in his campaign slogan: we, and he, will rise.