Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Why Won’t You Rubes Get Excited About Cory Booker

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Cory Booker 2011 Shankbone

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

[Update below. 8-28-13]

LEAVE CORY BOOKER ALOOOOOOOONE!!!!

Molly Ball is not impressed with “liberal” critics of Cory Booker. (And Paul Waldman agrees with her.)

“Cory Booker is not yet a senator,” Ball warns,”but many on the left have already made up their minds that the onetime Democratic wunderkind is a sellout.” I don’t think anyone thinks Booker is a sellout, which implies that someone was on the side of right and justice and then lost their way. If you want to boil it down to a phrase, ‘bought and paid for’ would be far closed to the truth than ‘sellout’. The attacks are largely a claim that he’s been motivated by ambition and support for the wealthy from the get go.  Progressive criticism of Booker is nothing new. It’s also odd to suggest that people are supposed to wait to criticize someone who’s been on the national stage for a while now, is running for Senate, and who has received effusive praise from many quarters all along. I do admit that I don’t understand the rules of when it’s appropriate to criticize Democratic politicians–not while we’re passing this policy, not before a presidential election, the midterms are coming. Somehow it’s always the wrong time.

If only there was a time when hippie punching was verboten! Even for a day.

What’s curious about the criticism is there’s very little substance to it. It’s not based on Booker’s record as mayor or the policies he espouses. Most of his policy stances are conventional liberal ones: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, in favor of raising taxes on the rich and increasing government spending on welfare and infrastructure programs.

Booker is a conventional Democrat, Ball’s argument continues, so he doesn’t deserve all the negative scrutiny. But if he is so conventional, then why all the positive attention? I suspect one reason Booker gets so much attention from his critics is because he gets so much attention period. Booker, as everyone acknowledges, is great at self-promotion, and is widely sought ought in the media, and has rather vast support from the donor class.  He has long been considered a rising star. As soon as Booker won the nomination, I received an email on his behalf from Sherrod Brown, claiming, “It’s critical we work together to fill the Senate with leaders who are committed to fighting for all the values we all share.” (What those values were went unspecified, other than the Tea Party label on his opponent).  Calls to support Booker were everywhere – even though the general consensus is that his opponent doesn’t have a chance in hell.  This is nothing new. The critics weren’t the ones who decided to focus on Cory Booker.

So look at the list here–you can pick out things he supports that are ‘liberal.’ But these are more base-line, this is what you should support to deserve the D at the end of your name type stuff.  Almost every member of the Senate Democratic caucus supports marriage equality. You don’t get liberal credit for it anymore. It’s non-negotiable.  Basically, what this all amounts to is that he’s socially liberal.  So is Bloomberg.

What about raising taxes on the rich? Well, if it’s not to pay for things we care about (like Social Security or public education) , this isn’t exactly a left position. It’s the neoliberals, like Booker, who think it’s a top priority to reduce the deficit through higher taxes. This is a common position among elite Democrats, but it’s hardly a progressive one. (Believing that taxes should be used to reduce the wealth and power of those at the top–that would be a progressive position, but it’s amusing to think Booker is in favor of that.)  Most neoliberals do support things like infrastructure spending or increased spending on the poor–as long as it’s paid for. Using the deficit to limit such claims tends to be pretty effective at keeping these things from being very effective.

What about education, “Booker’s major substantive difference with many progressives”?  It’s not clear why we’re supposed to discount Booker’s views on education. Nor it is true that this is an issue on which he is conventional. Diane Ravitch knows a thing or two about Booker, as well as Ball.

At least, Molly Ball [who Ravitch notes, had previously tried to persuade us in 2012 that Michelle Rhee really truly is a liberal and was taking over the Democratic Party] is now willing to concede that Michelle Rhee has an “extreme school-privatization agenda,” which is not exactly representative of the Democratic party.

But she never acknowledges that Booker has views that are closely aligned with Rhee. He supports privatization via charters and vouchers. He was chair of the board of the Wall Street hedge-fund managers’ Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which pushes for privatization and high-stakes testing. He brought Mark Zuckerberg to Newark and welcomed Teach for America, the Goldman Sachs’ construction of a special housing village for TFA, etc. etc.

That is, he’s both a leader and an outlier (supporting vouchers,  as Ravitch notes, makes him an outlier when it comes to the Democratic Party) on education. And note the ways this issue is intertwined with his connections to the financiers.

In addition, other similar figures who have pushed these ideas have also been severely criticized by the left–people like Bloomberg (long time supporter of Booker who is presently raising money for him), Michele Rhee, Rahm Emanuel, Education Secretary Arne Duncan (see here for a call from civil rights groups for his resignation), and Obama himself. Why is it strange that Booker would similarly find himself unpopular with people who care deeply about public education and see the movement of which he is a leader as an assault on public education?   Let Rahm Emanuel run for higher office and get lauded by pundits, while top Democrats send fundraising emails on his behalf and you’ll see what it looks like when progressives get angry.  (Waldman doesn’t mention education, which makes claiming that progressives aren’t talking about policy here a whole lot easier.)

“What Booker’s critics mainly take issue with” according to Ball, “are his associations, his persona, and unprovable allegations about his ‘worldview.'”

Why on earth would any of his critics comment on his persona? Could it be that this is what Booker has primarily been sold on? Here’s the New York Times (h/t Cory Robin):

When snow blanketed this city two Christmases ago, Mayor Cory A. Booker was celebrated around the nation for personally shoveling out residentswho had appealed for help on Twitter. But here, his administration was scorned as streets remained impassable for days because the city had no contract for snow removal.

Last spring, Ellen DeGeneres presented Mr. Booker with a superhero costume after he rushed into a burning building to save a neighbor. But Newark had eliminated three fire companies after the mayor’s plan to plug a budget hole failed.

In recent days, Mr. Booker has made the rounds of the national media with his pledge to live on food stamps for a week. But his constituents do not need to be reminded that six years after the mayor came into office vowing to make Newark a “model of urban transformation,” their city remains an emblem of poverty.

Live by the symbol, die by the symbol. (Note too–this is also about how he’s governed. For more on that, here’s a piece from the Guardian.)

Of course, this is how campaigns work. People don’t make decisions about who to support on the basis of policy papers (“the first policy paper he released during the current campaign was about child poverty, hardly a political winner.”) And why should they? Campaign documents are written to win campaigns, and are generally forgotten when the campaigns end.  Anyone who chose a presidential candidate on the basis of say, who supported an individual mandate, learned quickly that this mattered not at all. (Besides, being against child poverty is the polite way of saying you are ok with poverty.) That is, even if it were true, it’s not clear that it would be unusual.

In essence, Ball demands that Booker’s critics judge Booker on his own representations about what he believes, while ignoring things he said he believes (as long as he backs off in the face of criticism), and on the representations of his supporters about his motives which, if anything, are less provable from his worldview. This despite none of these supporters being mentioned by name, which, given Bookers’ associations means probably members of the donor class. (Could it be that a candidate–any candidate–and their supporters might have reason to dismiss legitimate complaints as ignorant feelings, or portray a candidate in a favorable light? )

What about that Social Security comment?

Booker had been paraphrased in the Bergen Record as saying that he “opposes raising the retirement age for most people in the country — except, perhaps, for people in their 20s or younger.” When the vagueness of that position prompted furious criticism, Booker tweeted that he opposes all cuts to Social Security and Medicare; would, if anything, expand the programs; and also opposes raising the retirement age and curbing benefits through the “chained CPI” inflation index.

There’s nothing vague about that comment. It’s a trial balloon, one that floats something no one should consider, that uses the political strategy of the right of trying to peel away the young so that they have less of a stake in the program which would undermine its political foundations.  It is an articulation of the position of the elite, the small segment of the population who is hostile to Social Security. Also, “if anything” is meaningless. If Booker, now after facing such criticism, believes in expanding those programs, he should boldly and loudly proclaim it. Otherwise, it’s best understood as a way to quiet progressive criticism. (Which this anecdote shows, works). Like all trial balloons that threaten your interests, it should be popped.

Is it so unreasonable to add up all the things we know about Booker and draw conclusions about his world view? It seems to me it’s unreasonable to ask us to judge each of these things independently as if they are unconnected. Here’ s Noam Scheiber, one of the unwashed:

[A]s Alex Pareene of Salon has pointed out, Booker shares a worldview with the financial elites who fund his campaigns. If one can deduce from his record and his public statements, he believes the economy functions best when wealthy people are allowed to deploy their capital freely, and that progress ensues when they train some of their gains on society’s ills– “the charity of the benevolent elite,” as Pareene labels it. This is why Booker was so affronted by the Obama campaign’s denunciations of the private equity industry back in 2012. And it’s why he apparently sees no conflict in holding public office while making millions from a tech start-up funded by the Silicon-Valley elect. (Booker briefly took a shot at translating this worldview into policy during the campaign– hinting that he’d be open to raising the Social Security retirement age for young people–before backtracking furiously when progressives called him on it.)

This isn’t about style, and it’s not just about a stray comment–it’s a claim that the comment fits within a larger pattern.  His “associations” here means his closest political allies, who fund his campaign, have made him rich, who he thinks criticizing (even if done during a campaign when no policy will come of it) is the equivalent of race-baiting. (Booker was the only Democratic official who, as an Obama campaign surrogate, publicly undermined the campaign theme because he cared more about defending private equity than the campaign–again, a position that makes him unusual in his closeness to the financiers).

The manic style, the questioning of Social Security, the leadership in the campaign for ‘accountability reforms’ that end up undermining public schools and public sector unions, the insistence on not demonizing the financial sector that crashed the world economy and then got bailed out, the efforts to entice investors the city as a policy solution, the getting rich through his connections–critics don’t see this as a string of unrelated things. Nor should they.

Ok, so how about Paul Waldman? Aside from generally agreeing that criticism of Booker is not policy based, he argues that “he’s perhaps [perhaps?] uncomfortably close to Wall Street and Silicon Valley, but that makes him a mainstream Democrat.”  That these problems are common, I think we’ll all agree, but matters of degree matter too. Booker is ensconced among the financial class in a way that is fairly uncommon. Having dismissed all this, Waldman insists the real problem is that Booker is a politician, and that’s what people are angry about.

Read the quotes above about Booker’s exploits and tell me he’s just like other politicians. Public relations are one thing. Running around the city at all hours of the night looking to save people is another entirely.

And here’s the odd thing: If he does want to run for president, Cory Booker is probably perfectly happy to get some slings and arrows from liberal writers and the Democratic base. In the Republican party, extreme conservatives are actual gatekeepers to the presidential nomination, with a variety of practical levers at their disposal (not to mention sheer numbers) enabling them to torpedo the candidacies of those they don’t like or at the very least force an endless ritual of humiliating genuflections (see Romney, Mitt). But it isn’t that way in the Democratic party at all. The left has influence, but not only is that influence seriously limited, they don’t hold grudges in the same way the Republican base does. A Democrat can start off as the subject of some distrust but eventually be embraced without too much trouble. And once you get to the general election, the lingering memory of some hippies yelling at you is a splendid credential, with independent voters but especially with the establishment media, which is already enamored with Booker.

One, there are no independent voters, or rather they are so small a group as to be negligible.

Two, “The left has influence, but not only is that influence seriously limited, they don’t hold grudges in the same way the Republican base does” is precisely the thing these critics are trying to change that Waldman is objecting to. I also don’t think Booker getting better press is something worth worrying about, because as the darling of the donor class, his press will continue to be great.

Three, the choices aren’t kill a candidacy or slump over and die. You can engage in criticism, which is what we’re talking about. That’s how you move the needle–by pushing back, even against those in the mainstream, who take steps outside it.

Four, if Booker is a fine presidential candidate (he is after all, a mainstream, conventional Democrat, right), and this will help him, why complain about it?

We spend too much time focusing on who should win elections, and who we should vote for but less on the talk around it, as well on who we focus on. You might think that progressives were organizing against Booker in the general–but they aren’t. They just are focusing their energies elsewhere, and trying to disrupt the idea of Booker the liberal lion, or even Booker, spokesman for the party. (Or president).

Why this is a problem is beyond me. Booker is going to win this Senate seat. Why is it so important that we not grumble about it?

[Update]: Today, Cory Booker announced a plan to reform criminal justice.  More of this sort of thing, please.

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Written by David Kaib

August 27, 2013 at 8:41 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] Democratic Party default position can be a mushy, pro-corporate reform position, and the less the corporate ed leaders will find they can avoid serious […]

  2. […] 5. Why Won’t You Rubes Get Excited About Cory Booker […]

  3. […] that separates them from conservative reformers. But it is not necessarily true, as ed reform star Cory Booker, former chair of the board of the Wall Street funded Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), is a […]


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