In the most acrid and divisive political environment in recent memory, Cory Booker is gambling his presidential hopes on the unlikely proposition that it is still possible to summon people to grace.
Indeed, that is the word the Democratic senator from New Jersey uses more often than any other as he travels the early-primary states.
“What’s called me to run for president is because I think we need a revival of civic grace. We need to reignite a more courageous empathy,” Booker told a recent Democratic gathering at a downtown arcade here, where his presentation was punctuated by eruptions of video games. “We need to understand that old African saying that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”
On the stump, Booker weaves a spellbinding argument with his call to unity and collective decency. He starts with how his own destiny was changed by 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. He touts his work with unlikely allies, such as conservative Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), with whom he advanced recent criminal-justice reforms.
His appeal to our better selves sets him apart in a combative Democratic field that now features nearly a dozen candidates and is growing by the week. Booker is not answering the populism of the right with an equally fierce version from the left.
And he stands in even sharper contrast from the utter lack of grace that has defined the presidency of the White House’s current occupant.
“I think this campaign is an opportunity to be more than about an election, but trying to return our country to the ability to address persistent injustices that existed long before Donald Trump,” Booker told me during an interview. “We had toxic water crises across our country that proliferated before Donald Trump. We had a criminal-justice system that was broken before Donald Trump, and low wages in this country as a percentage of GDP.”
If the election becomes “all about what we hate, and what we’re against, and we can’t find a way to reunify our country or to reignite that quest for a more beloved community, then I think we lose an opportunity here,” he added.
This antidote to cynicism is not the message some Democrats want to hear as they are looking for their champion to take on Trump and the Republicans.
“Maybe we should think about kicking them out first and loving them later,” Wendy E.N. Thomas, a state representative from Merrimack, told Booker.
It was not the first time Booker has heard that kind of skepticism. “I know that some people might think this messaging is a risk. 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.”
Then again, virtue is a fragile platform for a politician, particularly one who made his way up in the brutal world of big-city politics. Booker’s rivals for the nomination will no doubt point to where they say his own record stands at odds with the values he embraces.
When Booker was mayor of crime-ridden Newark from 2006 to 2013, the police department there aggressively employed the “stop and frisk” policy that disproportionately subjects racial minorities to baseless searches. He worked with Betsy DeVos, the Trump education secretary reviled by the left, on school choice. And his political career benefited, as his city did, from his close ties to Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
Still, the real test for Booker will likely come when the country gets a chance to see the Democratic contenders side by side on the debate stage beginning in June. Once the candidates start throwing elbows, will his uplifting message shine by comparison, or will it disappear?
“I do believe that there is a large enough core of Americans — decent, kind and aspirational people — who are hungering for us to get back to work with dignity, the kind of work that produces better results for everyone,” Booker said.
Grace, surely, is what the country needs right now. What is far less clear is whether that is what it wants.