Can Booker’s passionate bravado, policy platform, and outspoken embrace of criminal justice reform overcome the growing skepticism about his friendly posture toward powerful interest groups? This article is part of a larger series exploring the prospects of Democratic presidential candidates in depth.
The Passionate Public Servant
Cory Booker was first elected as the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey in 2006. This campaign was his second attempt at securing the office, after a bitter and dramatic showdown with incumbent Mayor Sharpe James in 2002 that ended with a narrow loss for Booker. During the course of that 2002 campaign, James accused Booker of being a Republican who received funding from the KKK and the Taliban and who was “collaborating with the Jews to take over Newark.” Let’s just say that Cory Booker is no stranger to a bare-knuckled political brawl. In 2006, Booker drowned Mayor Sharpe’s hand-picked successor with a deluge of money — outspending his opponent by a 25:1 ratio while characterizing his opponent as one of the Mayor’s cronys.
After being reelected as Mayor in 2020, Booker turned his sights to the U.S. Senate. Booker had expressed interest in running for Senate shortly before the 89-year old incumbent’s death from viral pneumonia. A special election was held in 2013, which Booker ultimately won. This was seen by many as the next step in the career of a rising political star.
As evidenced by Booker’s performance in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, he has a bit of a flair for the dramatic. When Senate Republicans stonewalled his efforts to make certain documents public, Booker decided to go ahead and release them anyways. That decision caused a firestorm in which some Senate Republicans advocated for Booker to be censured or expelled. While explaining his decision, Booker remarked that “this is about the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment.” However, that moment may only have been the beginning of Cory Booker’s moment in political time.
Booker’s speeches capture the fire of a passionate sermon with strong rhetorical flourishes and frequent appeals to the higher calling of public service. Indeed, Booker commonly portrays himself as a figure of moral authority and rational thinking juxtaposed against a world fueled by corruption and unreasonable political tribalism. In that sense, Booker views himself as a Spartacus-esque figure in modern American politics. In the 1960 film Spartacus, the titular character leads an army of revolting slaves against the Roman Empire. This is the classic story of a scrappy underdog who strikes fear into the hearts of an unjust oligarchy. Spartacus is himself a martyr in the fight to end slavery, and he inspires such fierce loyalty in his followers that, when faced with certain demise, each of his soldiers shouts “I am Spartacus” as they are slaughtered by the Romans. Cory Booker truly believes in the courage of his convictions and the righteousness of his actions.
Is Cory Booker the Right Candidate for the Party?
Booker believes that transformational change can be achieved by finding common ground. Expect him to speak frequently about healing the divisions that plague our nation, even though this type of rhetoric may not be quite as palatable when progressives are determined to take down Donald Trump. For many in the party, the time for appeals to “unity for unity’s sake" is over. It’s time to fight. It’s time to win.
Booker has actively been participating in the “arms race” of progressive policy proposals, keeping pace with the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren with his own signature pitch for a federal employment guarantee — this will surely become a centerpiece of his nomination campaign. These policy proposals provide cover for Booker’s more moderate tendencies and record. Sanders, Warren, and Kamala Harris have all endorsed Booker’s proposal. This opens up the possibility that bold, popular elements of Booker’s platform could be co-opted by candidates with more established progressive credentials, which would negate their effectiveness as arguments in favor of Booker’s own candidacy.
Booker made headlines in 2012 when he broke with President Barack Obama over Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital, which Obama repeatedly characterized as “vulture capitalism.” On Meet the Press, Cory Booked said this: “I’m not about to sit here an indict private equity…if you look at Bain Capital’s record, they have done a lot to support businesses and grow businesses.” He went on to call the attacks “nauseating.” Expect Warren, Sanders, and Biden to hit him hard on that point, since Booker’s campaign will be attempting to chip away at their bases of support. He will try to paint himself as a progressive, despite his close ties to powerful interest groups, but Booker is poorly positioned to make a compelling case for support from the party’s progressive base.
Especially in light of the role that Facebook played as an instrument of Russian influence peddling in 2016, expect Booker’s relationship with the Zuckerbergs and his previous opposition to regulation the booming technology sector to come under scrutiny. As Mayor of Newark, Booker received a $100,000,000 pledge from Facebook to invest in Newark’s schools. The thing about Cory Booker is that he isn’t just some corporate shill; he genuinely believes what he preaches. He believes that technology is the source of American innovation in the 21st century, and he believes that the government should not take an overly antagonistic stance towards business. He also believes that the pitfalls of capitalism should be offset by smart social welfare programs, which he defines as programming that enables people to engage more fully in the capitalist economy.
Notable Policy Positions
- By far, Booker’s most ambitious policy proposal is a federal employment guarantee. The idea is fairly simple; using federal funds, Booker wants to implement a pilot program to guarantee full employment in 15 localities. These jobs would pay no less than $15/hour and would guarantee full family leave, sick leave, and health care benefits. This pilot program would be used to gauge the policy’s potential effectiveness with the intention of applying it on a grand scale.
- The “baby bond” is another idea pitched by Booker to combat wealth inequality. At birth, each U.S. citizen would receive a $1,000 bond in their name — with additional money invested each year based on their family’s income. Children born into poorer families would receive more bond money on an annual basis. Upon turning 18, these bonds could be used to fund higher education or home ownership.
- Booker was a lead sponsor of the successful First Step Act criminal justice reform initiative, distinguishing himself as the potential candidate most outspoken about the failures of mass incarceration and someone who is capable of building bipartisan consensus around this issue. Expect Booker’s supporters to use the passage of this law as evidence that he can actually achieve legislative victories, whereas Warren and Sanders have failed to do so.
- Booker is also outspoken about the War on Drugs, calling it a failed policy and pointing out the racial and economic disparities in enforcement.
- As Mayor of Newark, Booker partnered with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to make a splash with an investment in educational technology. He has embraced charter schools, private school voucher programs, and merit-based pay for teachers—proposals that have been championed by conservatives.
- Has spoken out against the concept of single-payer health care, stating that he does not support the proposal. However, he signed on as a co-sponsor for Sen. Sanders’ “Medicare for All” legislation.
- Opposes raising the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare, supported legislation to increase the cost of living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security.
- Supports the National Infrastructure Bank, which became one of Hillary Clinton’s core policy proposals; an independent authority that would approve infrastructure projects and receive funding to create a continuous, sustainable investment in infrastructure.
- Championed the concept of “enterprise zones,” a market-based solution to addressing urban blight that was pioneered by Jack Kemp (a devout believe in supply-side economics).
Path to Victory
Cory Booker’s path to the Democratic nomination is fraught with challenges, but not impossible. By building his own arsenal of ready-made legislative proposals, he is attempting to compete for the progressive wing’s vote on a level playing field with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Likewise, he should also receive generous financial support from titans in the technology and financial industries. This will allow him to match the firepower of Sanders and Warren, who have strong grassroots fundraising networks. His penchant for soundbites will earn him free media on the campaign trail and during coverage of the primary debates.
But once you get past those fundamentals, it is somewhat difficult to envision a winning electoral strategy for Booker’s campaign. Iowa is certain to be a free-for-all; will he be able to compete with the likes of Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and midwesterner Amy Klobuchar? What about the handful of other candidates that will be looking to make a splash in Iowa? A fifth place finish seems like a best case scenario at this point (admittedly, this is very early in the process). He faces a similar conundrum in New Hampshire, where Warren and Sanders both have the advantage of representing a neighboring state. Sanders also won the New Hampshire primary in 2016. If those two end up splitting the base that supported Sanders, Booker could theoretically sneak by with a win as a fellow northeastern politician. South Carolina could be fertile ground for Booker, due to the state’s high African American population. Joe Biden will also be honing in on that state after serving as the #2 to the nation’s first African American President. Nevada could be a possibility, but other candidates outside of the top tier will also be looking to make their mark in the Silver State while front-runners will be looking to shore up their status.
With a victory in South Carolina, Booker could position himself to pick up four more states on Super Tuesday: Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. The absence of a true southern Democrat running for the nomination could make these states ripe for the picking. One key question, however, is whether or not the African American vote turn out for Booker the same way that it did for Barack Obama. Will Booker’s technocratic image and ties to the prevent him from connecting with southern black voters in the same way that Obama was able to?
California seems destined to become highly contested by candidates fighting for the party’s progressive wing. Booker’s connection to the technology industry could boost his chances; but if Kamala Harris is also running, expect her to negate potential gains in the Bay Area/Silicon Valley area where she has a home field advantage. Whoever wins in California will solidify their status as a serious contender for the nomination; it seems likely that several candidates will hinge their hopes on a victory in the Golden State, and that one or two candidates will concede after Super Tuesday as a result. Booker, however, does not necessarily need California, he just needs to remain competitive in other states to survive Super Tuesday. If Booker makes it that far and still has a realistic mathematical chance at the nomination, he could stand to benefit from the inevitable process of elimination as a candidate that is both palatable to the establishment and moderates while having the ability to point to his federal employment guarantee as evidence of his credibility with progressive voters.
Correction: A previous version of this article failed to mention that Booker signed on as a co-sponsor of Bernie’s “Medicare for All” legislation, giving the appearance that Cory Booker was opposed to the idea.