When I say Booker has a story to tell, what I mean is that his campaign has a theme, a point, an idea that he wants voters to understand and sign on to when they choose him instead of other candidates. Some candidates have one and some don’t: If I asked you why Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is running for president you could probably tell me (the system is rigged against ordinary people and we need to break the power of the plutocrats), but if I asked you why Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) or Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is running, you’d probably have a more difficult time.
To focus on campaign themes may sound shallow or trite, but it's been central to campaigning as long as there has been campaigning. And every successful presidential candidate has fashioned that kind of story to tell the voters, one that explains what the problem in America is, what the solution is, and why they're the only one who can deliver it.
Let's take a look at the video with which Booker launched his campaign this morning:
So the story Booker is telling is that our country has been riven by political conflict and he can bring us together, whereupon we’ll be able to solve our problems in a way that that allows all Americans to share in prosperity and progress. Or, as another candidate memorably once said: “I’m a uniter, not a divider.”
I only sort of mean that as a dig against Booker. The fact is, this message is true to who he is and who he has always been. Booker can be as partisan as the next politician, but he has always presented himself as the kind of guy who will hug everybody and talk anybody into supporting him. My favorite scene in “Street Fight,” Marshall Curry’s terrific 2005 documentary about Booker’s first unsuccessful run for mayor of Newark, is the one where Booker meets with a group of Orthodox Jews and starts comfortably dropping Yiddish phrases into his pitch (Booker and the Jewish community go way back). He really does want to bring everyone together.
But if that story sounds a little stale, it’s because it’s the same one Barack Obama told, and the same one George W. Bush told before him, and the same one Bill Clinton told before him. It’s safe to say that the number of Americans who think we can transcend our differences to solve problems together is not particularly large. And it’s especially small in the Democratic Party, where voters are looking for someone who will not only fight vigorously against President Trump but will do so in a way that makes a strong case for progressivism.
Before I go any further, I should say that the best starting point when assessing any presidential candidate is to remember that we really don’t know how they’ll perform, or how appealing they’ll be, until the campaign gets going. Running for president is unlike anything any of them have ever done, and history is full of candidates who seemed like strong contenders but turned out to be duds (John Glenn, Joe Biden), as well as candidates no one expected to be as strong as they were (Paul Tsongas, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders).
Booker has strengths — tirelessness, youth and the fact that, as an African American, he at least has the possibility of doing well with the party’s most important constituency, the base of the base. There’s nothing sure there, however, not only because there’s another African American candidate in the race, but also because there are plenty of African Americans who take issue with Booker’s record.
Which leads us to what may be his central challenge, which is that his ideological profile is . . . complicated. He takes some strongly progressive positions (supporting Medicare-for-all and the legalization of marijuana), but also has parts of his record in Newark and the Senate that will draw skeptical questions from voters. To highlight this, let’s look at what former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said when asked about Booker at a recent Washington Post event:
Talented, smart, articulate, hope that he stays in this campaign to the roots that I saw him establish in New Jersey. He was someone who was pro-voucher, he was pro-charter school, he was somebody who was tough on crime in the city of Newark. If he stays in that lane, and is the articulate, inspirational guy that he is, then I think he’s got a legitimate chance to be a serious potential problem for the president in the general election. If he goes way wacky left, then he’s just going to be another one of those people and he won’t be able to distinguish himself. I like him. He’s a friend. We’ve been friends for 15 years. He’s a good person, and I like Cory Booker.
You can see the problem. He’ll be questioned thoroughly on matters like charter schools, which are controversial among liberals, as well as his complicated relationship with Wall Street and pharmaceutical companies, which have a huge presence in his home state. When those questions are raised, Booker’s people push back hard, listing proposals he has — such as allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, which is anathema to the industry. They say, and he will too, that whether he took some contributions from big pharma hasn’t affected the positions he takes or how he would treat them as president. But the mere fact that he gets praise from Republicans such as Christie will be enough to make many primary voters suspicious.
I’m sure Booker will have a passionate argument to make on that score, one that reinforces his central message that he is capable of working across the aisle if that’s what it takes to achieve important goals. The question is whether that’s what Democrats are looking for right now.