Regular viewers of the horror-comedy Contemporary American Politics are well aware that the Democratic Party is a bit of a mess. Certainly, the past few months have seen Democratic candidates propelled by revulsion at our healthy president do quite well in places where Democratic candidates have typically done quite badly: We have a Democratic senator from Alabama for the first time in decades and there were rousing results from a series of special state legislative elections just Tuesday night. Still, the party seems to lack a vision that can carry it beyond the Trump era into a future where it can seriously beat back Republican hegemony across the country in a lasting way. On Tuesday, the Nevada Democratic Party unveiled an anti–Mitch McConnell mascot for this year’s campaigns. Mitch McTurtle, they’ve called him. This, my friends, will not do.
In their confusion and desperation, many Democrats cried out for an Oprah candidacy following her speech at the Golden Globes 10 days or lifetimes ago. But there are of course other more conventional candidates thought to be in the running. One of them is Sen. Cory Booker, most famous during his tenure as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, for his viral heroics. He “saved” a hit pedestrian. A freezing dog. A neighbor in a burning building. Imagine if Lassie had a knack for grabbing the attention of local and social media. Imagine if Lassie had then been elected to the United States Senate with the help of the pro-Israel lobby. That’s Cory Booker. As his speech on Trump’s “shithole” comment during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen suggests he’s now moved on to saving America.
It was a performance considerably more lively than his typical store-brand Obama routine, although there was still just enough middle-school sprinkled in to suggest he’s retained the same speechwriters. At one point, he quotes Martin Luther King, Elie Wiesel, and Gandhi in quick succession, a grand slam of banality that’s no doubt left JFK and Mother Teresa feeling a little jilted wherever they are. The deepest conviction evinced as he’s speaking, stronger than any others he professes over the nine-plus minutes of his speech, is that his glaring and gesticulating and chest-beating are deeply moving to someone somewhere. Reactions to the speech from some Democrats on social media suggests he’s probably right to think so. He’s also, right, of course, that Trump’s comments were wounding to many in immigrant communities. The problem, to this viewer anyway, is that the entirety of the Trump era is so unfathomably and obviously monstrous that choosing any one particular incident as an occasion for a Mr. Smith–ian oration smacks of opportunism. Every straw feels like the last. It cannot be otherwise because American political order itself is rotten. And the Democratic Party, of course, is part of the decay. It is true, as Booker says, that the immigration rhetoric coming out of the White House sounds like racist “social engineering.” This suggests he should save some of his histrionics for Sen. Dick Durbin, who is evidently prepared to grant the administration the largest restrictions to legal immigration in decades in order to save DACA rather than threatening a shutdown to press for a clean bill. In truth, there are probably too many jittery Senate Democrats up for re-election to make a shutdown a real possibility anyway, meaning that a victory for racist rhetoric—abetted by Democrats who would rather make immigration policy with a man who warns about “shithole” migrants than call everything to a halt in disgust—is all but assured. That’s worth yelling about too. Booker won’t do it, and it’s unlikely anyone else will either.
All things considered, the “anger” Booker taps into is much better than the conspiracy of love mush he’s laid on thick lately. We might as well encourage it, lest he lapse into teary tales about composite, yet “1,000 percent real” characters like his drug dealer friend from Newark, “T-Bone.”
Substantively, Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which would both legalize pot and offer restorative initiatives for people hurt by the war on drugs, is a deeply ambitious piece of legislation and the clearest sign that there might be some there there inside the man who criticized Obama for having the gall to make job losses induced by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital a campaign issue in 2012. He’s also backed Medicare for All, although this stance is beginning to look more like a prerequisite to running in a presidential primary in a post-Bernie world than anything else. The only vision clearly animating Booker is a mirage of himself in the Oval Office; whether that matters to voters will depend on how much displays like Tuesday’s really resonate. Failing that, he might want to find a few more dogs to rescue.