The more sober, less angst-filled Booker was on display in his interview this week with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, whose show has become a rite of passage for Democratic presidential candidates. It is worth viewing in full. One comes away with a different impression of him than one has from casual observation of him in his role as senator.
For starters, he talks about the substantive, bipartisan wins he achieved on criminal-justice reform but also on less visible issues, ranging from investment in low-income communities to a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles to a ban on some types of chemical testing on animals. A more serious and detail-oriented Booker dispels the impression some may have of a superficial, performance-oriented politician.
In quieter tones than one sees in a stump speech or in the Senate, he can vividly describe what he calls a “nation in crisis,” in which he says the forces pulling us apart are stronger than those keeping us together. Part of that he lays at President Trump’s feet, but he emphasizes that widespread disillusionment and alienation, often stemming from inequality and perceived unfairness, began before Trump, who just made things worse, Booker says. It’s the loss of faith in government and institutions that he wants to address.
In explaining what he sees are the troubling disparities in America, he emphasizes his experience growing up near, serving as mayor of and returning to live in Newark, N.J. This is much more interesting and revealing, frankly, than his experience in the Senate. It’s rare that we have a presidential candidate whose perspective and life are rooted in a low-income community. This is no limousine or Ivy League liberal (although he attended Stanford, Oxford and Yale.) His corny but accurate line — “I got my BA from Stanford and my PhD on the streets of Newark” — certainly sets him apart from the rest of the field.
The issues he talks fervently about — voting rights and mass incarceration — are leavened with what seems like authentic optimism. He clearly comes from the perspective that the country is tired of hate, division and negativity and wants uplift, love and reconciliation. He may be right, although it’s not clear that is what Democratic primary voters are looking for.
Booker also appears to be more circumspect on policy than some of his opponents. His recent answer on the Green New Deal exemplifies his ability to describe an issue, to frame a proposal not his own as “bold” but not endorse the specifics:
This, as we’ve described, is a wise way of steering clear of the obvious problems associated with an utterly impractical wish list.
Likewise, he separated his stance on health care from that of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) by saying that even in countries with a national health care system, private insurance continues to be available. He seems to be smartly refining his position after signing on to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) maximalist Medicare-for-all plan in 2017.
The Cory Booker we now see — more measured, more focused, more conversational — will serve him well, I suspect. The ability to modulate tone and position is not a sign of hypocrisy or inauthenticity. To the contrary, it’s a sign of maturity — and in Booker’s case suits him much better than the showy Senate committee member.