Newark Mayor Cory Booker. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
There is a disease spreading across our political punditry, and the beloved mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, seems to have contracted it. On Sunday’s Meet The Press, Booker disavowed the new ad campaign attacking Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, and in doing so, compared the Obama team’s decision to air the ads to the right-wing invocation of Reverend Wright to take down the president. Booker released a retraction video hours later, but the incident indicates just how advanced the sickness of false equivalence is in our national dialogue. The plague has now infected a normally sharp public official unlikely to confuse a thinly veiled racist play against the first African-American president with an examination of the economic track record of his challenger.
I’m as much a Cory Booker fan as the next populist progressive. I’ve watched with bemusement as his social media presence has made him a superhero, able to plow driveways in biblical snow storms and tweeting as he goes door to door during hurricanes to protect his constituents. His larger-than-life persona went stratospheric last month when he rushed into a burning building to save a woman trapped by the flames. But Cory, while you had me at your first hashtag, you lost me yesterday when you uttered these words:
“This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides,” [Booker] said on Meet the Press. “It’s nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity. Stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. This stuff has got to stop.”
In an effort to appear objective in a political climate anything but, talking heads now feel the need to utter a Democratic offense in the same breath as a Republican offense. But I’ve got news for them: when the offenses don’t line up—as they often don’t these days—these folks don’t sound objective, they sound like lunatics.
Mitt Romney is running as CEO-in-chief of a country starved for jobs. His economic record is central to his candidacy by his own design. The ads in question feature workers from factories destroyed by Bain Capital challenging Romney’s model for job creation. In an election where the economy and jobs lead voters’ concerns by double digits, a candidate’s history as an industrial titan is not only germane but crucial to decision-making. Obama’s team are hardly the first people to think so; Winning Our Future, the Sheldon Adelson–backed Super PAC, launched the mini-documentary King of Bain, widely credited with helping win the South Carolina primary for Gingrich.
This line of inquisition simply does not equate to using a preacher’s old inflammatory statements as an attack on the president’s patriotism. Even the previous Republican challenger understood the immorality of stoking racism as a path to the Oval Office.
But unchallenged false equivalence in our media and from our politicians is at epidemic proportions. A few cases in point:
In March, after the release of Game Change—the movie depicting the train wreck that Sarah Palin made of the McCain campaign in 2008—McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt defended himself on Morning Joe by claiming that both parties choose unqualified candidates for vice president. He compared John Kerry’s choice of John Edwards as vice president in 2004 to McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, saying both were ill-suited to run the country. Schmidt is a Republican operative with self-interest in playing down the Palin decision, so we might forgive him the transgression. But NBC Chief Correspondent Andrea Mitchell—guest on the same show and the epitome of establishment media—was quick to affirm Schmidt’s assessments of the two candidates. Not a single guest made the obvious point that Edwards was a respected senator with thoroughly vetted policy positions whose character flaws would not be revealed until years later. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, was virtually unknown and her lack of knowledge on even basic policy issues would have become clear in the most basic interview of a rigorous vetting process.
Earlier this month, one of Politico’s premiere political reporters, Manu Raju, stated in an article about Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s frustration over gridlock in the Senate that the filibuster is a tool that has been employed with growing frequency by both parties over the years. Raju’s history book seems to begin in 2009 when the threat of filibusters by the Republicans shot up to more than double that of their Democratic counterparts in previous years.
More insidious is the February column by Washington Post analyst Ezra Klein that claimed that “politically motivated” shifts on issues by both parties undercut any ideological meaning of “left” and “right.” By making this sweeping conclusion, Klein ignores the body of evidence that shows distinctly different motivations for the examples he uses. Democrats have consistently shifted position in an effort to compromise with Republicans—being lambasted by their base for doing so—and move legislation forward. Republicans have shifted position to stake out increasingly extreme positions that will drive government out of business. In conflating the two, Klein misinforms readers about the nature of the political dysfunction in our country and makes it that much harder to fix it.
The problem of false equivalence is so rife in our country that the president dedicated a chunk of his speech at the Associated Press luncheon in April to the issue. While it doesn’t rank explicitly on the list of voter concerns, this habit contributes to the high rates of American distrust in the news media. The American people are smart enough to know when a commentator or anchor holds an opinion and forgiving when this is made apparent. Attempts to cover up personal bias with false equivalence does not make one objective, but it does make one complicit in obscuring the dynamics of that lead to political gridlock and an unresponsive democracy. I’d expect Cory Booker, who’s built his entire political career on being responsive, to be immune to such an affliction.