Cory Booker wants you to know that he’s tough — really tough.
The New Jersey Senator has struggled to rise above the pack in the most crowded Democratic presidential field in history, hovering at just around 2% since he entered the race. The combination of assets that led him to believe he could win the nomination have failed to bear fruit, mainly because others have championed them more authentically. He thought his African-American heritage would help him gain an Obama-esque momentum, enter Kamala the cop. He thought his focus on national unity and his more temperate approach to culture war issues would give him an edge with electability-minded Democrats, enter Mayor Pete and his Midwestern nice.
Over and over Booker has missed the waves that other Democrats have ridden to become real players in the primary and break former Vice President Joe Biden’s overwhelming plurality in the pools.
So he’s decided to stop being himself.
Political observers probably got their first taste of Booker’s adolescent earnestness when he declared his “I am Spartacus” moment during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. What Booker was celebrating was his willingness to risk his position in the Senate in order to do the right thing by releasing classified documents about Kavanaugh to the public.
They weren’t classified, and they didn’t confirm Kavanaugh’s purported support of racial profiling that Booker was claiming either.
Booker didn’t start acting this way in the Senate, it’s part of who he is. Being a highly-educated, presumably financially well-off, young politician has meant that he has always had a certain interest in the spotlight, being single means he’s had no one to hold him back. (RELATED: Cory Booker Opens Up About His Relationship With Rosario Dawson On ‘Ellen’)
Take his tenure as Mayor of Newark, around the time Booker started to develop national attention. The publicity stunts Booker committed during that period were so numerous that media organizations like The Daily Beast were able to write compilation pieces of all of his escapades. He responded to tweets about dogs left in the cold with “I’ll head up myself and investigate,” coming back home with it in tow. He invited random twitter users to have lunch at his house during a power outage. Booker leveraged his single life and a willing media to develop a reputation as your friendly neighborhood mayor. In something out of a cliched superhero origin story, Booker even once rescued a woman from a burning building, and as he noticed his second degree burns from the incident he simply remarked, “Yesterday all my problems were really big to me, today things feel a lot more clear.”
If you’re getting a vaguely new age hippie vibe off of Booker, you’re not wrong. Booker’s been a vegetarian for a long time, and just a few years ago transitioned to veganism as well. D.C. interns know that one of the places you’re most likely to run into Cory Booker isn’t at the local bars, but at Whole Foods. (RELATED: Vegan Cory Booker Says Meat Eaters’ Days Are Numbered)
His dietary preferences and voting record in the Senate have gone hand in hand, since he was first elected in 2013, he has consistently been one of the most liberal Senators, earning top marks from progressive organizations. This may sound surprising, given how in the Democratic Primary he has been painted as a moderate. Booker’s unpopularity with presidential primary progressives can be chalked up to his heterodox position on school choice, previous support for Israel, and closeness with healthcare companies, many of which are headquartered in his home state.
Even Booker’s particular flavor of progressivism belies his own sort of “Hope and Change mantra,” as reparations quickly ascend as a third rail in the Democratic primary, his version is centered around something called baby bonds. These bonds, which are carefully tied to income and wealth in a way to most benefit African-Americans, involve a small but meaningful federal investment in a low-risk savings account that eligible children are allowed to access when they turn 18, a far-cry from the confiscatory reparative justice many Democratic activists are calling for. (RELATED: Here’s Where Each 2020 Democratic Candidate Stands On Slavery Reparations)
Unless you’re Joe Biden, this is a Twitter primary, and Booker, despite his progressive bonafides, is losing that contest, forcing him to change tack. Democrats don’t want a contrast with Donald Trump’s image as the right’s bodyguard, they want a tough-guy of their own. Enter stage-right, Macho Cory Booker.
Since he formally announced his campaign for the democratic nomination in February, Booker has slowly transitioned from the candidate preaching the gospel of love to one who, in his own earnest way, aggressively empathizes with a primary electorate out for blood.
It hasn’t been a slow transition, as recently as the beginning of the summer Booker was still priding himself on his restraint and even had his campaign manager out recommending people donate to one of his rivals, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s floundering presidential campaign to help ensure she made the debates.
Those same debates were Booker’s inflection point. Just as the inevitability of Joe Biden’s victory in the primary was starting to settle over the field, his equivocation on his past relationship with segregationists provided the opening Booker was looking for to leverage his African American heritage to possibly break away from the pack.
— Kevin Robillard (@Robillard) June 19, 2019
Suddenly Booker carved open a lane for himself to attack the frontrunner, and even started taking potshots at Biden, whose motormouth provided ample opportunity for an opportunistic candidate to dissect his words and find verbal transgressions.
This isn’t about a hoodie. It’s about a culture that sees a problem with a kid wearing a hoodie in the first place. Our nominee needs to have the language to talk about race in a far more constructive way. https://t.co/c2BFSSOHro
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) June 28, 2019
There was only one problem, most Americans aren’t on Twitter, and in order for his criticisms to stick he needed to make these criticisms on the debate stage.
He never got the chance, Booker, by random selection, was not on the same debate night as Joe Biden. Kamala Harris took his line of attack and executed it with precision, turning her lagging campaign into a top tier candidacy.
But Booker seems convinced that mining Biden’s voters, especially black ones, is his best shot at survival, and so as the inter-candidate sniping before the second debate heats up, Booker is doubling down. This time however, he’ll be on stage with Biden, but so will Kamala, meaning we’ll likely witness a pile-on as both candidates attempt to convince Biden’s loyal black base that they are the more authentic avatar of the black electorate — not the first black president’s vice-president. (RELATED: Biden Campaign Fires Back At Booker’s ‘Mass Incarceration’ Dig)
Part of Booker’s attack is at the core of Biden’s appeal — electability. Given black voters’ position as the core of democratic electorate, Booker claims that any democratic presidential candidate has to put those voters first, and that means centering appeals on them, as opposed to the white working class voters that occupy Biden’s imagination as he pursues the Oval.
In addition to ramping up his rhetoric against his Democratic rivals, Booker has also markedly changed his tone on President Donald Trump. The peace and love candidate recently recounted on Late Night Seth Myers a story about a constituent who wanted to punch the president. Booker concurred and said that his testosterone sometimes makes him feel like punching Trump. Though he said he wouldn’t do it, he was bullish on the prospects of a fight with the president, saying Trump is an “elderly, weak specimen.” (RELATED: Cory Booker: Sometimes I Feel Like Punching Trump)
The appeals to physical confrontation come back to Booker’s focus on Biden as well. The former vice president first made physical overtures to Trump a few weeks ago where in an interview he playfully challenged the president to a few rounds in the boxing ring. Even Booker’s attacks on Trump are focused on mirroring and exceeding Biden’s appeal.
Cory Booker’s announcement video for his presidential campaign was titled “We Will Rise,” maybe he still believes that, but any rising he plans on doing will have to come after he rolls in the mud with his fellow Democrats as the Iowa caucuses approach.