Why Not Cory Booker?

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S1: Quick heads up, you’re at the top. This episode is with Jordan Weisman. He pretty much always gets salty on the show. So you’ve been warned.

S2: At this point in the Democratic primary, I got to tell you, I was not expecting more candidates. I was like, this clown car is full. No, no.

S3: I wanted to get Sleeth, Jordan Weisman into the studio to talk Democratic politics with me because both of us were kind of baffled by this moment.

S4: First on CBS This Morning, the newest Democrat who wants to take on President Trump next fall.

S2: All the sudden, we have Mike Bloomberg coming out of the woodwork. We’ve got Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts.

S5: I think what I’ve decided is you can’t know if you can break through if you don’t get out there and try. Everyone’s just rolling up in here. Why the hell not?

S2: The Democratic presidential field is simultaneously expanding and contracting. Just yesterday, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock dropped out of the race, while at the same time former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg spent 31 million dollars to jump into it, pumping out a flashy new ad campaign.

S6: Mike Bloomberg for president. Jobs creator. Leader problem-solver.

S7: It’s going to take all three to build back a country, 31 million bucks is the most any candidate has spent on a single week of advertising ever. By the way, and the weirdest part of all this, on the whole, if you look at polling, Democrats are pretty happy with their lineup.

S8: They you know, they see the big four, which is right now, Bernie Warren, Biden and Bush is just. That’s a pretty good slate of candidates methods. That’s that’s that’s where we’re we’re content.

S2: But someone isn’t. Well, really?

S8: Yeah. There’s this there’s this elite moderate sense that there’s a gap there’s this gap among the candidates that there is no great moderate hope out there.

S7: Maybe this is you looking from candidate to candidate thinking, this one’s too young. This one’s too old. That one over there, they’re just too much. And if this is you, Jordan has got a very simple question for you.

S9: When he can’t stop asking himself why, why does anyone like Cory Booker, Cory Booker, the other mayor who’s a Rhodes scholar who is running for president. Jordan wrote an article laying out this very simple case.

S10: If you really are put off by Sanders, you don’t like Warren. I think Cory Booker is probably the best option. Like just flat out on the merits. He is the guy. He seems like he actually has real values and real causes he cares about and put energy into.

S9: So today on the show, Jordan, who probably isn’t going to vote for Cory Booker, will make the case for looking again at Cory Booker.

S11: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S12: So Corey Booker right now, he’s a senator from New Jersey. As someone who’s lived in New York for a while, I feel like he is best known as the man who most wanted to be mayor of Newark, New Jersey. He ran when he was 32 years old. Yeah. And you’d spent years pursuing that job.

S13: There’s there’s a documentary made about great fight to get the corruption to work establishment of Sharpe James.

S5: Exactly. Yes.

S12: If you put people in the same people, whether you’re Dr. Sanjay Gupta, there’s this one scene from that documentary that I think sums up how people think about Cory Booker. He’s he’s walking down the street. It’s right before the election day. He sees a little kid, sort of ushers her across the street and a little kid goes up to the camera at the end. And she’s like, I just met Cory Booker, smell my hands, leave me, smell my hands.

S14: And I’m the guy who’s shooting the videos. What do they smell like? She’s like he smells like the food.

S2: And it’s adorable. And it’s like what Cory Booker was at that moment. And I think looking at him now running for president, I’m like, does Cory Booker still smell like the future?

S8: I would say yes. In the kind of mid Ott’s early aughts, he did probably smell like the future. Right.

S13: It was he he was a talented, energetic, young black politician who had a reformer streak in him. And he was really good at using Twitter. People forget he was sort of one of the first like Twitter celebrity politicians. He was always running around, also saving people, shoveling their driveways, whatever. Like he was a one man superhero in Newark.

S2: He literally ran into a burning building and rescued a woman as mayor.

S13: Yeah. I mean, he was really using his old Stanford football player skills, you know, for for for good for heroism, tackled a criminal or tried to tackle a criminal. He ran down a guy with a knife at one point who and then, like his bodyguards, ended up tackling. The guy shouted, not in my city. But this was his persona like that, the happy reformer.

S8: Right. And it seemed like he was pretty clearly from the get-go marked out for national politics, but also some of his reforms. And Newark ended up a little controversial, most memorably his attempt to overhaul the school system there, which he did with a one hundred million dollar grant from Mark Zuckerberg. And he vastly expanded the number of charters in Newark.

S2: Let’s let’s look slow. Yes. Idea down, though, because I feel like if you go back and you look at what he did there, it explains his approach to governing. And also, you know why he did smell like the future and what that means now.

S8: Well, yes. So the reformers in Newark are interesting because he was looking at an entrenched system, but a lot of stakeholders and a lot of problems. Try figure out how do I change this whole thing very quickly.

S2: When he came in in 2006, the state was running the schools. Yeah, because they were in such terrible shape.

S13: Yeah. And he needed control of it. And he had to figure out how to do this with a Republican governor when he actually undertook these reforms.

S2: Chris Christie was in office and he he said, I want to make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.

S8: Right. And again, this is this is a time where there was this idea that charters were sort of a good bipartisan idea. Right. Like Barack Obama likes to charters like in D.C. that the Democrat Democrats were pushing charters. You had Michelle Rhee there. You know, there was this idea that you had these sclerotic public schools dominated by teachers unions that were bad for kids educations. And we needed to kind of break the system and we needed to get new blood in there and new institutions. And he went about it in this incredibly top-down way, hired a bunch of consultants and sort of just totally upended things. And there was a lot of community pushback. There was a lot of anger. There was a lot of rage both amongst parents and schools themselves, for obvious reasons among teachers.

S2: The idea here was to go in and fire a lot of people.

S8: Yeah. That’s what it usually means when you’re like that’s what reform often means is firing people or taking resources from one place and give one person giving it to another with Newark’s public schools. Each kid in your classroom is more money for the school. Right. So if kids are leaving your school, you’re losing money. That’s what the fight is over. It’s about funding. He said, you know, you’d make an omelet. You need to crack a few eggs. He broke a lot of eggs. It’s not clear. He made a great omelet. That’s the end of it.

S7: Right. I mean, you’re saying when he did these reforms, it was a different time.

S2: But are there any signs that Cory Booker sees it that way? That it was a different time? Or does he see it as a success?

S8: He’s sort of just you know, I think he defends a lot of what he did. And there are some signs that the reforms have actually produce better test scores. Don’t. Scott at Fox wrote a good article about this. You know, the research on. He doesn’t necessarily come from 100 percent unbiased sources. People looked at it, tend to have some stake in what the result is funded by Zuckerberg. Yeah, exactly. But you know, what it looks like is it caused a lot of upheaval. Some have some public school officials say that they still haven’t really recovered. At the same time, it does appear that some kids are doing better overall. So it was a mixed bag in the end. And it was it was dramatic. And it was Cory Booker didn’t go to the Senate and start pushing for more school reforms along the lines of what he did in Newark. That hasn’t been the center of his career in federal government.

S12: So you think in some ways he saw this and thought, OK. I learned from this and now I’m going to shift my focus elsewhere?

S8: Well, he he decided he was going to be a criminal justice reform guy when he got to Washington. That was going to be his big issue and that has been his big issue overall.

S12: And you write about the fact that you could look at him embracing criminal justice reform and say, well, when you were mayor of Newark, you oversaw a police department that did a lot of stop and frisk and wasn’t running things in a particularly progressive way.

S8: Right. So this is this is again, you have to kind of throw yourself back into, you know, pre BlackLivesMatter politics. Right. You have to kind of go back in time a little bit. And when Cory Booker first came here, Newark had a crime problem. It still does. But one of the priorities was public safety. And he ended up bringing in a New York police official, a guy from the Bronx, essentially to run his department. And the way put it is that he brought the New York playbook with him, where they did a lot of stop and frisk, where they were doing a lot of kind of broken window style policing. And there were some drops in crimes that seemed to make progress. But it also eventually led to a Justice Department investigation and pushback from the ACLU about whether or not people civil rights are being violated. Not a great look, not a great look. And Booker’s talks about this and, you know, the way he frames it is that he was upset at first. But then when he talked to the people at the Justice Department, the ACLU and his chief of staff, he came around to it as an opportunity to get more resources for new work and to work with the federal government and start making serious reforms and actually to improve things. I think a lot of people said that’s kind of happy spin. If not, he probably realized that point like he had to change because he was alienating some of his own constituents. His reaction to it was to start making reforms and even came around to supporting ideas that have been sort of long gestating, Newark like civilian review board doing things that the activists wanted. And so he’s sort of kind of trying to change. He tried to kind of change his image before he went to the Senate. And then when he was elected to the Senate, he said, I’m going to make criminal justice reform. My big issue that’s going to be that that’s going to be my crusade. And to his credit. And this is a big part of why I like him as a politician for all of his faults. He’s followed through on that. He stuck with it. He’s stuck with it.

S15: When I first came to Washington, Chuck Grassley was speaking out against our efforts to reform. Now he’s joined with us. This is not a left or right issue, Republican or Democrat. This is really an American movement that’s beginning to happen. It’s really promising when you have the Koch brothers supporting this. Newt Gingrich, a guy named Grover Norquist, a lot of very well-known Republicans are really out saying what, this system is just not fair.

S8: He’s spent a lot of time working across the aisle, trying to come up with bipartisan bills. Guys like Mike Lee from Utah or Rand Paul from Kentucky, you start working with these guys to come up with bills that could conceivably pass. And then he eventually did play a role in helping to craft and lobby for and marshal support for this thing called the first step act that was passed into law. That Dontrelle side was in office. Yeah.

S16: For the first time in over a decade, Republicans and Democrats came together to enact common sense reforms that are intended to make our criminal justice system more fair.

S17: The first step back led to the release of thousands of nonviolent federal prisoners. Can we do more? Yes.

S18: This legislation is a product of compromise. This legislation is just one step in the right direction.

S8: But if so, he you know, it was the most important criminal justice reform in years. And he played a role in that. He played from all reports that I’ve seen an important role in that.

S12: What’s interesting about how you present the criminal justice reform, I think, is that you talk about it as a personal crusade for him. Yeah, because Bernie and Elizabeth Warren, they have personal crusades. That they’re on here and so does Booker. But the other moderates don’t really.

S8: Yeah, it’s hard to say what like Pete Bridges’s personal crusade is at this point. Right. Like he started off his campaign by going on as reclines podcast and talking about the need to make fundamental democratic institutional reform, which got a lot of nerdy people like me excited. Hey, just about adding states and changing the electoral college and getting rid of the filibuster and reforming the Supreme Court even. Just the higher he is gone in the polls and the more successful he’s become, the further he has gotten from that stuff, he’s kind of dropped it from, he still talks about it and then but it’s not at the center of his campaign. And there’s been some reporting that he’s de-emphasized it because of donors, which is really discouraging. And then Biden. I mean, what’s Biden’s crusade other than he’s want to be present for a really long time, a really, really long time, and kind of make America peaceable again. Let’s make America chill again. I don’t know. And Booker. You know, night. The love thing is corny.

S19: I believe this is his campaign slogan. Yeah.

S5: That you can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. All of them.

S8: Booker I think Booker really does love people. I think he genuinely believes at this point in criminal justice reform. And some of his big ideas are also about just racial justice more broadly economic racial justice. He has this idea called baby bonds, which I described as the closest thing anyone will suggest to reparations. It’s this idea that you give every kid who is born a savings account and then every year the government will put some money into it, or at least if they’re under a certain income, they’ll put some money into it. And then the poorer you are, the more you get from the government. And then when you turn 18, you can use that money for education or buying a house or some sort of investment activity. Right. The idea is to close the wealth gap between the rich and poor. But because the way you know, because of the breakdown in income and wealth by race, it’s a big boost to black kids. And so if depending how you measure it, it goes a long way to closing the wealth gap at the median. It’s an interesting idea and it’s an idea. It’s been floating around for a while and he embraced that. He’s also he’s also done some edgier things. He’s talked about restoring funding to Tarnoff, better known as welfare, and actually increasing food stamp funding, which might be why some people have trouble thinking of him as a moderate, because he he does talk about these issues like racial justice and building up the welfare state in a way that classic moderates don’t. But I still slot him in there because he doesn’t go for really the full bore left wing ideas like pushing for Medicare for all. Now, those sorts of institutional forms like eliminating the filibuster.

S20: I mean, he has no health care plan now that we can see. He actually has he has none, which I as a health care writer, I should be more offended by that than I am. But but I think. You think there’s a kind of honesty there. I mean, there is because like in the end, the Congress is going to be the one who writes it. Right. Right.

S8: And he’s that’s why he’s sort of admitting he’s he said, I think Medicare for all is a good goal. We’re not going to do it anytime soon. We’re not taking a hundred and fifty million people’s private insurance away in one fell swoop because people would freak out. Let’s let’s work on making reforms that are more doable.

S9: You said that you personally are not going to vote for Cory Booker.

S8: Right. Yeah. I mean, I’m I’m probably going to vote for Warren or Bernie. But, you know, if Booker if it lets put this way, if Warren and Bernie were weren’t there, I would definitely pick Booker. He’s your number three. He’s my number three. He’s my he’s my first choice moderate, which might just mean he’s the left most that realistically that might just mean he’s the left most moderate. But I think that the more charitable thing to say is that he’s the moderate who actually has some sort of vision for what he wants to do with the presidency. That isn’t just check the ambitions for of leftists or just be president.

S2: So why write this article, though, where you’re arguing for moderates to take another look at Booker? Why not write something trying to convince them to look at Warren or Bernie?

S8: Yeah, I mean, there’s an argument that maybe I should spend my energy pushing for the candidates who I personally love. But I still think that there are people out there who who are turned off by Sanders is insistence on on single payer or his his rhetorical commitment to democratic socialism, even if what he really is pushing for is mostly sort of new deal, actual new deal liberalism. Let’s let’s leave that aside. You know, and there are people who are queasy about Warren for one reason or another. Lately, I’ve been questioning some of her political instincts. I think she’s I think four days out of five, she’s like a fantastic politician. She’s like a pitcher with like a 2.0 i._r._a. And then like on the fifth day, she just gives up seven runs. She’ll just like mess up on like the Native American heritage thing or Medicare for all thing. And just she just she has this habit of kind of big stumbles that you don’t necessarily see coming. That’s a little disconcerting to me. So but so if people are looking for a a someone who was never committed themselves really wholeheartedly to passing Medicare for all, for instance, or isn’t talking about revolution Booker’s a good option?

S2: After you wrote this article, a couple of New York magazine writers kicked around the idea, like Cory Booker said, hey, Jordan Weissmann over at Slate thinks we should look at Cory Booker. Why aren’t we looking at Cory Booker? And I thought it was really interesting. The place they landed was that they agreed with you. Essentially, yeah. Except they said Cory Booker has not demonstrated his electability. Yeah, that’s his big challenge. The same way we’re talking about the women not demonstrating their electability.

S8: Yeah, it’s this huge problem. It’s the Biden problem, right? It’s a cliche at this point. Oh, it’s true. But it’s sort of the conventional wisdom that black voters want some proof that white people will also vote for their candidate before they commit. Commit. Yeah. Well, and that’s what I’m with Obama, right? He won in Iowa. And up until that moment, he’d been having trouble getting traction with black voters. And then after that, they said, oh, he can also win white voters. Okay. He’s our guy to end with Corey Booker. You would? Same with Paul Harris. To some extent. You would assume that there’s some constituency in the black community and Biden has just sucked up those votes in South Carolina. Biden is the preferred candidate for the black community. And so, you know, he can’t break through to what would seem like his natural constituency. And he’s not breaking through in Iowa yet, where people simply falling in love with Pete said, oh, like where, where? Where does he have his break for a moment? It’s not clear.

S7: I mean, it’s the electability thing is hard because it’s it’s all about race.

S13: A lot of it is. Yeah. I mean, it’s like this catch 22 almost for a Democrat. In order to win the Democratic nomination, you have to win black voters between black voters. You have to convince them that you can also in white voters and for white voters. You have to convince them that you’re electable. It’s tricky.

S14: Jordan Weissmann, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for having me. Jordan Weissmann is Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson. Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewitt and Mara Silvers. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I will talk to you tomorrow.