How Cory Booker won

at 03:41 PM ET, 05/22/2012

Newark Mayor Cory Booker clearly misspoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday when he lumped attacks on former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital into the same category as attacks on President Obama’s connection to Rev. Jeremiah Wright.


Newark Mayor Cory Booker's right hand is bandaged as he stands in his driveway between a boarded-up 433 Hawthorne Avenue and next his home, left, in Newark, N.J., Friday, April 13, 2012 as he talks about rescuing a neighbor Thursday from fire at the home. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Booker has spent the last three days kind-of, sort-of walking those comments back, insisting that he never meant to conflate Bain and Wright while holding firm on his condemnation of the negative campaigning in both parties. (Booker called the tone of the campaign “nauseating”.)

Conventional wisdom dictates that Booker’s gaffe hurts him politically. Conventional wisdom could well be wrong.

“While he may take grief in the short run, it will only serve to benefit him in the long run,” argued one senior Democratic party operative granted anonymity to speak candidly about such a politically sensitive topic.

Here’s how Booker’s comments could work to his long-term benefit.

Remember that prior to this episode, Booker was really only known by political/media types who cover this sort of stuff for a living and by those in the Twittersphere where the mayor has long been a major presence. (His rescue of a woman from a burning building made national news but was a blip on the overall radar.)

In the last 72 hours, Booker has been everywhere. You literally can’t turn on the television without hearing about — or from — him. The latest example? His interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Monday night, which, if you missed it, is here:

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It’s hard to imagine how Booker could get that sort of publicity even if he was trying to — and, to be clear, we don’t think he was trying to. (He offered this introspective tweet on Tuesday: “In your most difficult times, hope is generated on the inside. This is the essence of inner strength.”)

And what has Booker been talking about during his time in the national spotlight? Mostly about how negative campaigning is a terrible thing that makes people cynical about American politics, which, of course, is an opinion held by the vast majority of voters.

But, wait, you say. Booker has also been publicly scolded by the White House — and many liberal Democrats — for his seeming defense of not only Romney but the benefits of private equity. (President Obama’s lead political strategist David Axelrod has said Booker is “wrong” in his defense of private equity.)

“Progressives are livid,” said one senior Democratic strategist who, like everyone we talked to for this story, requested anonymity to talk about the matter. “Cory already had the Wall Street crowd and already had a reputation as an independent thinker. He just created a lot of questions amongst folks he would need in any future Democratic primary.”

And yet, there are plenty of people in the Democratic professional political class who see Booker’s actions over the last three days as less crazy and more crazy like a fox.

“Whatever race he chooses next will be an eight-figure campaign, and in the New York market, it’s political suicide to write off Wall Street money,” said one Democratic consultant. “He’s no stranger to Wall Street but he also has this transformative air about him that makes straddling this divide possible.”

Booker is widely rumored as a statewide candidate in New Jersey — either for governor in 2013 against Chris Christie or for Senate in 2014. (A recent spoof video Booker did with Christie threw some cold water on the idea that the two men were readying for a race against one another.)

There is also some genuine political value in Booker putting a bit of distance — rhetorically speaking — between himself and Obama. As a fast-rising African American politician, the comparison between Obama and Booker is inevitable.

But, Obama is not the most popular politician in the country these days so being seen as an Obama clone is not as politically beneficial as it once was. And, Booker undoubtedly wants to make his own way — whatever race he chooses next — rather than being seen as simply following Obama’s well-trod path.

All of the above is to simply say that to assume that Booker badly damaged himself over the past three days may be to misread how the politics of his comments ultimately will play out.

“Long term I think this is probably a net positive for [Booker],” said one Democratic consultant closely following the situation. “Realistically the base is always going to be fascinated by him/love him anyway.”

 
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