New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker made history Wednesday: He testified against the nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general in the Trump administration.
But, it wasn't the fact that Booker broke with Senate tradition that was the truly newsworthy thing for political junkies. It was the way Booker described his decision to serve as a witness in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Here's the key passage:
In the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country . . .
The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve toward justice. We must bend it.
Sound like anyone else you know?
That Booker used the occasion of Sessions's confirmation hearing to deliver an impassioned plea for the rights of women, African Americans and LGBT Americans, and that he did it in such strikingly similar terms to the way in which outgoing President Obama has talked about these same groups, is not an accident.
Booker is widely seen as one of the (relatively few) rising stars within the Democratic Party. At 47, Booker is far younger than other Democrats being mentioned as potential 2020 candidates, most notably Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — who will be in their 70s by the time the next presidential election rolls around.
He has largely downplayed his interest in such a race. But there's no mistaking his interest in a national candidacy given the rhetoric he chose to oppose Sessions. “I will always choose conscience and country” is the most obvious campaign-y line, but there were several other moments during Booker's appearance before the Judiciary Committee in which you can hear hints of what could well be the basis of his 2020 message. (You can listen to all of Booker's testimony here.)
And if Booker's testimony on Wednesday is any indication, his presidential campaign will have strong echoes of Obama's messaging: calls to our better angels tempered by an awareness of the demons that still dog us. That, as judged by Obama's continued popularity among Democrats even as he prepares to leave office, is a sound strategy.
Whether Booker will be able to execute on it remains very much to be seen. Early returns are mixed. Booker's speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention was well delivered and well received. But his 2013 special-election victory following the death of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg was far from inspiring, and raised real questions about his readiness for the national spotlight. His Twitter messages with a stripper were, um, odd. And even more troubling was Booker's kind of, sort of acknowledgment that he had made up a drug dealer named “T Bone,” whom he often referenced during past campaigns as a real person.
The debate over whether Booker will be able to step up to the challenge of a national race in the same way Obama did is for another day. What we learned today is that he's very, very interested in giving it a try.