Sooner or later, whenever I tell somebody I’m writing about Cory Booker, one question comes up in some form or another: What’s he doing here?
The junior senator from New Jersey has been running for president since February 1, and his poll numbers have barely budged beyond 2 to 3 percent. It’s still early, but this sluggishness in Booker’s forward momentum seems to be diminishing some of the candidate’s bouncy confidence. His campaign staff has in recent weeks even floated the prospect that their man could end his run if it doesn’t get more money. This could be little more than a tactic to reenergize his loyalists; it’s likely he still believes he could catch a wave and ride it somewhere in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina—the states where he’s been spending much of his time over the past seven months. Meanwhile, Joe Biden remains at the head of the pack, with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders at or near his heels and Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and various others still in the chase. Those whose numbers didn’t align with their hopes (notably Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, and Jay Inslee) have gone on to other things. Booker hasn’t and, as of this writing, is doing everything but jumping up and down and waving his arms among the pack of suits to get people to hear what he has to say and how he’s the Democrats’ best hope to beat Donald Trump.
Cory Anthony Booker likely wonders why you’d even ask the question. Dude, as he’d put it, he shouldn’t have to fight for attention. He should be killing this thing, lapping everybody else in the pack. He carries all the bona fides that elitists love (ex–Stanford football player, Rhodes scholar, Yale Law grad), the kind of CV that makes the anti-elitist within me curb my enthusiasm. But his rah-rah, can-do fervor matches front-runner Joe Biden’s ampere for ampere. If Booker gets too carried away with enthusiasm, he’s still packing a speaking style that’s bright, fluid, and adaptable enough to accommodate the front porch—and the talk show couch. He can come up with just as many ideas to pierce Trump’s great wall of mendacity, just as many solutions to America’s economic miasma as Sanders and Warren, reminding listeners as often as he can that he’s the only candidate who lives in a low-income, predominantly minority neighborhood. (“People on my block work full-time jobs, harder and longer hours than my parents did, and still need food stamps at my local bodega,” Booker has said.)
And though Booker, at 50, was born at the tail end of the 1960s, he identifies with that decade’s insurgent energies, deploying a rhetoric of love, compassion, and empathy toward one’s attackers that is attuned more to the soaring tones of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s than to the “It’s the economy, stupid” nuts and bolts that Democrats have been fixated on to beat Republicans since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 triumph. While his fellow Democratic challengers still strike poses as problem solvers, as their party’s neoliberal playbook has instructed for decades, Booker positions himself more as a healer, aiming his message past the incendiary polarization of the present moment. The emphasis on love and empathy at least feels distinctive enough among his competitors to be a rhetorical spin move.
“We have a common pain in our country,” Booker said. “But we’ve lost our sense of common purpose. And we have not fully learned that lesson of King that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’” He speaks often in his public appearances of love—more specifically, what he characterizes as a “ferocious” love, “one of the toughest, most durable forces ever.”
Hearing this kind of exhortation hurled toward wherever Lincoln’s better angels are hiding reminds you of why Booker was once one of the first names summoned by those casting about for a Gen Xer who could champion liberal Democratic values. You heard more and better of this in August, four days after the mass shooting in El Paso, when he appeared at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist gunman killed nine black people at a Bible study session four years ago. Booker dropped his prepared text for a direct assault on white supremacy, saying it has been “ingrained in our politics since our founding.” He urged direct action in regulating firearms, declaring there is “no neutrality” in the fight against racism. “You are either an agent of justice or you are contributing to the problem.” The next day’s press accounts buried these remarks beneath those of his rivals—especially Biden, who not only remains ahead of the rest of the field but also polls higher among older African Americans than either Booker or Harris. The speech was Booker at his poised and passionate best. Still, the needle did not jump.
What’s he doing here?
It’s a question a nerd often hears at cool kids’ parties. Maybe because I was a prototypical African American nerd growing up, I recognize too well what Booker might be going through in trying to convince skeptics of his viability as a presidential candidate. He’s never more disarming than when he lets his geek flag fly, as he did by showing up on a break from campaigning at July’s San Diego Comic-Con, insisting that, as a lifelong Star Trek fan, he considers himself one with its cos-dressing, selfie-shooting, memorabilia-buying multitudes, flashing Vulcan “live long and prosper” signs at the Trek exhibits. Right-wing radio had itself a chewy snack over Booker’s impulsive “I am Spartacus” shout-out at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing last fall over the prospect of releasing a confidential set of the nominee’s George W. Bush administration e-mails. But it now sounds less like over-the-top grandiloquence than an involuntary blurt of his inner pop culture nebbish.
Barack Obama was a black nerd, too, but—as proud of being one as I am and Booker (apparently) continues to be—44 was a nerd who, once the cool kids got to know him, could cruise to a student council presidency with an implacable sangfroid that Election’s Tracy Flick and, for that matter, her real-life counterpart Hillary Clinton could only envy. Booker’s hard-charging manner is more Flickish than Obama’s ever was.
You also have to wonder if there’s a residue of been-there-done-that toward Booker on the part of Democrats for whom being an articulate black man isn’t quite enough to evoke or transcend memories of the black president they still love more than anybody who’s running now. Harris doesn’t face this issue because, as a black woman, she hasn’t been here before in the general sense. Booker does in part because, in the same general sense, he has. (Which, one would think, would be less of a handicap now than it was before 2008.) Certainly there was a time, after he finally won the mayor’s job in Newark, that the pundit class was sure Booker was a shoo-in for becoming America’s first black president. But Booker’s a very different articulate black man from Obama: a moister, less cool iteration. Booker is a lot of things, but cool isn’t the first quality that comes to mind—except, maybe, when it comes to his private life, not making a whole lot about who he has been dating, including his present great and good friend, actress (and fellow comic book nerd) Rosario Dawson. It’s the only aspect of his life and work about which he is in any way circumspect, perhaps because he doesn’t think his love life is as important in this campaign as ending Trump’s immigration horrors, reforming the criminal justice system, eradicating income inequality, and removing lead from urban water systems.
He may be onto something. Hardly anybody foregrounds Booker’s private life when he’s on talk shows or doing interviews. That could change if the needle does jump. But it’s also possible that gossip fatigue has been seeping through the cultural landscape over the last (let us say) two years because there are just too damn many far more important things to think and worry about. Gossip gets its juice from a consensus perception of shame, so I’m guessing that’s what happens when your president exhibits no shame or remorse—and is still president in spite of it.
But if we can’t talk about your private life, Senator, can we have a word with you about lead in the water? Toward summer’s end, news platforms were humming with reports of lead contamination in Newark’s water system serious enough for the EPA to urge the city’s residents to drink bottled water. After 2013, Booker’s last year as mayor, eight officials in his revamped water agency were charged with federal crimes over what a New York Times investigative story described as “a scandal involving kickbacks, no-show contracts and millions of dollars in wasted public funds.” What makes such revelations awkward (at best) for Booker is that he has made both his seven-year record as mayor and his attacks on environmental neglect in poor urban areas prominent features of his presidential bid.
What’s he doing here?
So far, the distribution of bottled water in Newark hasn’t seriously hampered Booker’s momentum—to the extent that, as of this writing, there is any momentum. But when things like this crop up, they remind you of how easy it is for skeptics to pick on Booker. Many liberals drawn to his image as a crusading mayor started backing away from him as long ago as the 2012 presidential campaign, when he told Meet the Press that he was nauseated by an Obama ad that attacked private equity companies such as Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital. Even though Booker walked back his criticism by saying Romney’s business record was fair game, the taunt of “Wall Street candidate” lingers. Then there’s his reputation in progressive folklore as the candidate of Big Pharma, though he now says he refuses to accept contributions for his presidential campaign from pharmaceutical (or any other) corporations and has ramped up his criticism of drug companies for questionable practices.
Should Booker’s campaign gain traction, he’ll have to face questions about his alliance in 2010 with then–New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to maximize school choice in Newark and encourage more charter schools in the city, which led to a $100 million investment by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. That initiative put then-Mayor Booker at odds with public school teachers and principals who said they were being stigmatized and ultimately marginalized by the moves, whose results have been inconclusive at best. Booker has repositioned himself as an advocate for public schools without disavowing his previous advocacy of charter schools.
Every politician has to adjust, pivot, and reposition for different campaigns. But liberal-left resentment toward Booker seems especially astringent, despite his support for Medicare for All, his 14-point gun control policy (including an assault-weapon ban and gun licensing), his proposal for a “baby bonds” program that would give every child born in America a $1,000 savings account. “By the time that the poorest kids in America are 18 years old, they’d have upwards of $50,000 to invest in things, actually, that create generational wealth,” he told a WNYC interviewer this spring. “Not only will it help every kid get a fair shot…[but it also] eliminates the racial wealth gap.”
Keep in mind, though, he’s neither Joe Hill nor Malcolm X. And he has never pretended to be. Booker is a child of suburban privilege whose parents, as groundbreaking black IBM executives, had to fight hard to be able to provide their children with a comfortable home and elite education. Neither his mother nor his father ever allowed Booker to forget where they and he came from, and the guess here is that he grew to adulthood ingrained with the belief that it takes both bottom-up activism and top-down corporate involvement to make a better world. It may be one of history’s little jokes that he’s going for the presidency at a time when his base constituency’s trust in corporate input on progressive objectives has been all but exhausted. He would have been regarded as a breath of fresh air in 1992—as he was a decade later when he first challenged Sharpe James for the Newark mayor’s seat. Now he’s just another Democratic Party eminence carrying the baggage of negotiation and compromise that comes with a 21-year career into what could be the bitterest and most polarizing political campaign since… well, the last one.
What’s he doing here?
But if that’s so, then why the hell is Biden leading in all the polls? Gaffes and malapropisms aside, Biden’s old-shoe familiarity is now considered an asset among the party’s mainstream. I keep hearing that one of the (many) problems Democrats face in this presidential cycle is that nobody running has yet captured voters’ imagination. But if Biden is still—still—leading the field, then how much of an imagination do candidates have to capture?
History may be having its fun with Booker. But he thinks it—or at least time—may be on his side. On writer-comedian Larry Wilmore’s July 4 Black on the Air podcast, Booker noted that no nonincumbent candidate leading the polls at roughly this point in a presidential race has become president: not Walter Mondale in 1984, not Al Gore in 2000, and not Hillary Clinton in 2016. He likes his chances somewhere in the rear of the field. Charm, elbow grease, and his determination to aim for the electorate’s heart, as opposed to its head and gut, will do the rest. Once again, he may be onto something—only it’s by no means inevitable that Booker would be the beneficiary of a Biden breakdown between now and next spring.
Also, when I think of Booker at this stage of his life and career, I’m lately reminded of another idealistic but pragmatic big-city mayor propelled to stardom and then the Senate 70 years earlier. Hubert Humphrey was, like Booker, an effusive, relentless, and often impassioned advocate of liberal values. Humphrey’s daring push for a civil rights plank in the Democratic platform in 1948, when he was a corruption-battling Minneapolis mayor, led to the US Senate—where he immediately faced hostility from the right for his challenge to segregation and disparagement from the left for his anti-communist positions. Much like Booker, Humphrey eventually established a sound liberal record while learning how to deal productively with both sides of the aisle.
But Humphrey, like Booker, wanted more. I recently rewatched Primary, Robert Drew’s documentary that followed Humphrey and his fellow senator John F. Kennedy as they made their way through the back roads of Wisconsin for its 1960 Democratic presidential primary. Kennedy’s rock star aura (though nobody called it that back then) and campaign staff now convey an air of inevitability that likely wasn’t as apparent at the time. But what struck me in this viewing was how effective and incisive Humphrey was when speaking to a group of farmers, articulating their aspirations, fears, and resentments over being neglected or dismissed by big-city politicians. Booker has some of the same affinity for intimate detail when talking to voters. Yet Humphrey, though representing a neighboring state, ran uphill against the better-funded Kennedy machine, whose candidate is shown speaking in broad generalities to a predominantly Polish Catholic audience of Cold War campfires in the night. Common sense lost—and so did Humphrey in the long run, when his presidential hopes came to grief as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, defending a war in Vietnam whose prospects for success he once dismissed. Still, Humphrey as a senator persevered and on some level made more consequential changes to the nation in that role than he likely ever would have if he had been president.
I’m not saying the analogy is in any way a perfect one. But… dude? Just think about it. You have every right to stay in this race and do what it takes to win. But at some point, you have to ask yourself, “What am I doing here?” Do you, as you’ve frequently said, want to make America live up to its promises of justice and equality for all? Or do you want to be president?