After almost every Democratic presidential debate, I’ve found myself asking some version of the same nagging question: Why don’t more people want to vote for Cory Booker?
In my heart, I know the answers. He’s relentlessly, unflappably earnest and corny—a fount of dad jokes whose speaking style, when cranked up to high, can make him come off as a campy youth pastor. (It doesn’t help in this regard that he decided to make “love” the central theme of his campaign.) There was his “I am Spartacus” moment during the Kavanaugh hearings (which, my God). As far as I can tell, he basically doesn’t have a health care plan. He will never, ever be beloved by the party’s left thanks both to his time as mayor of Newark, where he oversaw a massive and controversial charter-focused overhaul of the city’s public school system with a giant injection of cash from Mark Zuckerberg, and the fact that he’s the Democrat who decided it was a good idea to defend the honor of Bain Capital when President Barack Obama was hammering Mitt Romney for his time there.
And, to be clear, he’s not even my first choice for a nominee. Personally, I’m still toggling between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
But here’s the thing: It is pretty clear that some portion of the Democratic Party has made up its mind to vote for a business-friendly moderate who wants to build incrementally on the Obama administration’s accomplishments, and who will try futilely to bring some measure of unity back to the United States. And if that’s what you’re looking for, Booker strikes me as the best of our current options.
Consider the alternatives.
There’s Joe Biden, whose voice is basically the sound of synapses failing to fire. Leaving aside his Senate record, which has not exactly aged well, the man’s garbled, sundowning debate performances have raised serious questions about whether he still has the mental clarity or physical energy to actually make it through eight years in the White House. His repeated insistence that Republicans will have an “epiphany” and work with him once Trump is gone also forces one to wonder whether he’s become deeply deluded or is just cynical. The man can inspire some affection, but not confidence that he can do the job of president.
There’s Amy Klobuchar, whose slogan at this point might as well be “no we can’t,” given that her post–salad comb run has mostly consisted of promising to voters over and over that she won’t try anything too ambitious.
There’s Kamala Harris, who is very good at rhetorically incinerating opponents like Biden and Tulsi Gabbard and very bad at laying out a clear vision of what she would like to actually accomplish as president. (Some might even argue she doesn’t belong in the centrist column. But that’s the point: It’s hard to tell.)
There’s Pete Buttigieg, whom I found sort of compelling when he first appeared on the scene. His obvious smarts and focus on making structural changes to America’s democratic institutions like the Supreme Court, granting statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico, and eliminating the Electoral College marked him as someone who understood the deep, entrenched problems plaguing the country’s system of governance. The guy’s mild, Ivy League demeanor made those explosive topics sound almost boring, which I considered a plus. But the further Buttigieg has risen in the polls, the further he’s drifted from those issues. He’s morphed into a cloying avatar of America’s elite meritocratic institutions with a fine, if somewhat generic, policy platform whose actual track record in government is an uneven run as the mayor of a small Midwestern city, where his handling of police and housing has alienated significant swaths of the black community. Speaking of which: He’s literally polling at zero among black voters in South Carolina.
And then there’s Booker. Again, Spartacus isn’t perfect. His flashes of corporate friendliness sometimes make him look more timid than his moderate counterparts; both Harris and Biden have shown more openness to breaking up Facebook than Booker, for instance, which I would venture might have something to do with his relationship with its CEO. But there’s also a lot to like about the guy.
You want raw IQ intelligence? He’s a Stanford grad and, like Buttigieg, a Rhodes Scholar. You want experience? He’s been a U.S. senator for six years, and, for all his successes and failures in Newark, he still has experience as the executive of a large, hard-to-govern city where he took a shot at enacting transformational change. His school reform effort, which caused a massive backlash among much of Newark, was grounded in a bipartisan, mid-2000s consensus about education reform that now looks outdated and in many ways naïve. (Hopefully most of us have realized that teachers’ unions are not the great Satan of public schools.) But as Dylan Scott of Vox has written, it may not have been the outright disaster that it’s often depicted as. Some data shows that student performance has improved in the city, and while Booker’s successor ran against his education overhaul, he’s declined to undo most it.
Booker is also fairly good about critiquing left-wing ideas on practicality grounds without lapsing into attacks on the values underpinning them or resorting to facile defenses of the status quo. He has suggested that Warren’s wealth tax might be unworkable—and, to be honest, it might be—but also backed ambitious policies like mark-to-market capital gains taxation and major increases in the estate tax that could replicate much of its effect. He says he backs “Medicare for All” in principle but thinks we need to focus on passing incremental reforms first, to set us down the path toward it (which philosophically puts him in the same camp as Buttigieg and Warren).
But the thing that I most respect about Booker is that, unlike some of his moderate competitors for the White House, he actually has a personal crusade. Since arriving in Washington, the man has been a consistent and vocal advocate for criminal justice reform, and spent years working on bipartisan bills to reduce mass incarceration. That work and accumulated credibility paid off last year, when he played a key role helping to negotiate, and rounding up Democratic support for, the First Step Act, which Donald Trump eventually signed into law. Some might accuse him of hypocrisy, since in Newark he initially governed as a tough-on-crime mayor whose police department employed stop-and-frisk tactics and was the focus of a fairly damning Justice Department investigation, which he’s since tried to play down. But you could just as easily also argue that the DOJ intervention was his Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment: Booker began enacting reforms of his department before the inquiry was complete, and has put reform at the center of his career ever since. It’s now the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. He’s been an eloquent advocate for marijuana legalization. (As he put it Wednesday, pot is “already legal for privileged people.”) And along with legislative reforms, he’s promised to use his presidential pardon powers to grant early release to as many as 20,000 people in federal prison.
Along with criminal justice, Booker speaks eloquently about the need to tackle systemic racism in all parts of American society. To that end, he’s offered a plan for tackling the racial wealth gap that, as I’ve written, is probably the closest any mainstream Democrat will come to proposing an actual plan for reparations. Booker might be a moderate on many issues, but he isn’t merely trying to tap the brakes on left-wing priorities. He has a specific vision for how he wants to use the presidency that tracks with his political career in Washington.
And finally, the guy might be a cornball, but he is kind of likable. He’s a vegan Star Trek nut who, when he isn’t lapsing into overly excited grandiloquence, can be a charismatic, funny presence onstage. (“I have a lifetime of experience with black voters—I’ve been one since I was 18,” was definitely deserving of a laugh Wednesday night.) Plus, he’s made gleefully taking down Joe Biden into a sport, with lines like “I thought you might have been high when you said it” and “You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.” Those were some great moments, and my bet is he’ll have plenty of good zingers ready for the general. If you want to vote for a moderate, it couldn’t hurt to pick one who might pull off a good dad joke at Trump’s expense.