The Ghost of Frank Lautenberg Wants to Have a Word With You

Gone but not forgotten—not if the Frank Pallone campaign has its way.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Way back in January and February, it was one of the smoothest memes in politics. Cory Booker, the TED Talk-ready mayor of Newark, was too eager to run for U.S. Senate. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, the 30-year incumbent Democrat, was resdiscovering his vim and vigor as he held off this young usurper. I kept harrumphing that Booker was 21 points up on Lautenberg and most voters wanted the 89-year-old Lautenberg to retire, but nobody listened, until Lautenberg thanked the NYT for an A1 story about his resilience by … retiring. And then he died.

Nevertheless, like princes in some fairly tale trying to recover the pieces of a magic crown, the non-Booker Democrats have copped Lautenberg’s message. Rep. Rush Holt, a progressive Democrat from Princeton, boasts about how little news he makes. Rep. Frank Pallone, who slept through a few chances to run for Senate, has built the more coherent case about how he works for New Jersey and Cory Booker just appears on TV. (As someone who covers Congress frequently, I’m amused by the theory that showing up to Congress two or three weeks a month is tougher than governing a somewhat failed city.) Today Pallone released a statement “from the family of Senator Frank Lautenberg,”* which makes all manner of unsubtle, on-message jabs at Booker for being too damn famous, too damn close to Chris Christie.

Frank Pallone knows that gimmicks and celebrity status won’t get you very far in the real battles that Democrats face in the future. Frank Pallone worked with Frank Lautenberg for many years.  He understands what it takes to take on and defeat Republicans and the special interests that attack the well being of working families.  While it may not always attract glamorous headlines, Frank knows that to be effective you must put New Jersey and your principles first, not your own glory. When New Jersey Democrats examine the Senate candidates closely, they may be surprised to find out that not all of them share core Democratic values or loyalty to the party.

Human beings don’t actually talk like that; this is a compilation of attacks Pallone has made on Booker. The idea that Booker has been too close to Christie has a little promise, as Christie’s numbers among Democratic voters have fallen from the 50s to the 30s. (The result is that Christie’s lead over State Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democrat given the ugly task of running this year, has fallen from 41 points to 30 points. As I found when I met her on Sunday, she’s trying to tie him to the national GOP on social issues, which isn’t where Christie and Booker intersect.)

I don’t know. Meme me once, shame on you; meme me twice, shame on you. The median Democratic primary voter is aware that voting for a non-Booker candidate means sending a reliable liberal to the Senate, while voting for Booker means promoting a possible future president. We have a good test here of whether celebrity and potential can overwhelm the typical machine-state value of “waiting your damn turn.”

*Does the title stay with you upon your passing, like some honor from the Roman Senate?