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Does Race Explain Cory Booker's Political Identity?

There are only so many ways for a black pol to win statewide

Criticize Cory Booker from the left and you’re likely to get two legitimate forms of pushback: The first is that, despite his close ties to big business, Booker has spent too much of his life fighting for (even living among) the poor to fit the profile of a corporate lackey. The second is that the critique doesn’t take into account the way African-American Democrats must position themselves if they want to be viable candidates for statewide office.

I dealt with the first response in my recent piece about Booker. (Short version: There’s nothing inconsistent about looking out for the poor and for big business simultaneously.) But I neglected the second, and it deserves some attention.

The argument as it applies to Booker is roughly as follows: Yes, the guy spends a lot of time mixing with the masters of the universe, from whom he also raises a ton of money.* And, yes, his policy positions sometimes reflect the worldviews of these high-powered contributors. But there’s no way a black mayor of Newark would have a prayer of winning a U.S. Senate seat, as Booker is likely to do this fall, if not for the money and connections he’s accumulated thanks to this approach. Nor would he stand much of a chance if he hadn’t cultivated a political persona that defies white stereotypes of an urban black pol.

The response to which is: There’s no question that black politicians face huge obstacles when running for statewide office. There’s no other way to explain why the rate at which African Americans get elected governor and senator is so far below their share of the population. (By my count, Americans have elected two black governors and three black senators since reconstruction.) Because of the reluctance of white voters to support an unknown African American, rookie black pols must typically run for office in majority-black areas, which tend to be very liberal. And this defines them when they seek higher office. The only plausible way to move up is to spend years after that first win constructing a political identity that transcends race or partisanship, or which associates the politician with ideological moderation. (I wrote about this problem back in 2004. Obama is obviously the archetype for the first approach. Former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder is the most successful practitioner of the second.)**

Booker has clearly studied these examples. He favors Obama-esque rhetoric about coming together rather dwelling on what divides us. He’s gone out of his way to court New Jersey governor Chris Christie as both a political wingman (Booker invited Christie to join him on national television after Mark Zuckerberg pledged $100 million to Newark’s public schools) and a policy collaborator, even when the policy is clearly right of center. (Booker was pretty much the only big-city New Jersey Democrat to sign onto Christie’s proposed constitutional amendment capping annual property-tax increases.) Booker also boasts some longstanding departures from liberal orthodoxy, like supporting private-school vouchers. He’s a big fan of using tax breaks to lure businesses to cities like Newark.

These attempts to defuse white voters’ stereotypes of an urban black pol all strike me as pretty reasonable. Most of them are probably (regrettably) necessary. But Booker goes much, much further. Beginning in late 2010, for example, he adopted what was essentially the mainstream Republican line on austerity. He talked about how the country was “drowning in debt,” how we “cannot sustain the level of expenditures we’re doing,” how “we have to figure out ways to shrink American government.” He said we should raise the Social Security retirement age for people in their 30s and 40s while emphasizing the need for “tax breaks on those people who are creating wealth.”

Basically, Booker took his occasional deviations from liberalism and blew them out into an entire political philosophy. You can draw any number of conclusions from this process: That Booker genuinely believes this stuff; that he didn’t start his career believing this stuff but has spent so much time around right-of-center businessmen that he’s internalized their worldview; that he was simply following what he deemed to be the political zeitgeist. But, from the perspective of a liberal, none of these explanations speaks well of him.

Even so, I can understand why Booker might have tacked in this direction. As I say, winning statewide office as an African American is a preposterously tall order. If it turns out he was simply overcompensating in response to the constraints that white voters impose on black politicians, well, that makes sense on some level. But that doesn’t mean we should forgive it. Cory Booker is about to be elected to a very powerful office. We journalists have an obligation to call him out if his worldview veers into the realm of nonsense, which is what GOP austerity politics amounted to in 2011. 

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber

*My favorite account of this is a New York Times piece in which Booker invited a reporter to City Hall to check out a tracking system he’d implemented to make city management more efficient, then bailed on the appointment to attend a series of fancy events in Manhattan.

**I make no assumptions about what the politician’s underlying worldview is. Left to his or her own devices, the politician may be more comfortable as an orthodox liberal or as a moderate; as a partisan or as a transcender of partisanship. Trying to generalize would take you into the same realm of stereotyping that creates the burden for black politicians in the first place, though obviously individual pols, like Obama, offer a number of clues about what they really believe.