But 11 months later, just three weeks before the first ballots will be cast in Iowa, Booker has bowed to increasingly obvious reality. On Monday, he announced he was suspending his campaign.
The final knell was the fact that he did not qualify for this week’s Democratic debate, the second from which he was cut. The Democratic race began with the most diverse field ever, and there are still more than a dozen candidates officially in contention. But only six people — all of them white — will be on the stage Tuesday night in Des Moines.
Booker is a mesmerizing orator — in my view, more compelling a speaker than any of the other Democrats running. He presents the story of his own life as an allegory of the best that this country can be. His destiny was changed by a white man, a volunteer lawyer, who helped his parents buy the home of their dreams at a time when New Jersey real estate agents steered African Americans away from white neighborhoods.
Booker uses the word “grace” frequently and calls for a “courageous empathy.” He says that beating President Trump should be the floor for Democrats, not the ceiling: “It gets us out of the valley. It does not get us to the mountaintop.”
His problem was not that he lacked a solid operation. Booker had a talented campaign team, and a good organization, albeit one that ran out of money as his prospects dimmed. What was really misplaced, sadly, was faith that his uplifting message could be heard in the ugly moment we are in.
I could see that even on that first trip to New Hampshire. While those who showed up to hear him admired what he had to say, they were skeptical that leading with love is the answer in 2020. At one event, Wendy E.N. Thomas, a state representative from Merrimack, brought a laugh — including from the candidate — when she told Booker: “Maybe we should think about kicking them out first and loving them later.”
In an interview afterward, Booker told me that was far from the first time he had heard that kind of skepticism. “I had a friend of mine this morning send me some social science data about how outrage is so much more motivating than a message of love. They literally sent me social science stuff,” he told me. “But I do not believe you can campaign wrong and then hope to govern right.”
As he announced his departure, Booker said that while he fell short in his campaign for president, he has not lost the central belief that animated it. “I’m proud I never compromised my faith in these principles during this campaign to score political points or tear down others,” he said. “And maybe I’m stubborn, but I’ll never abandon my faith in what we can accomplish when we join together.”
Booker’s may not have been the right rallying cry for the fevered 2020 primary campaign. But it will be a terrible thing for the country if it cannot strike a chord somewhere down the road.