Superhero Spartacus Senator Cory Booker Would Run 2020 Campaign On Love and Free Hugs

One day in June, with his staff before a meeting. (Photo: New York Magazine / Andres Kudacki)
One day in June, with his staff before a meeting. (Photo: New York Magazine / Andres Kudacki)

Cory Booker’s got a lot of love to give, and he’s betting that’s what it will take to win in 2020.

Anyone who thinks it’s nothing but teeth-grinding paranoia and rank misery in Washington these days hasn’t been to the office of New Jersey senator Cory Booker. These people are happy. Indeed, his staff are some of the cheeriest, nicest people you could ever hope to meet. When I arrive on a hot, swampy morning just before Labor Day weekend, I am greeted with hugs and candy. An exuberant woman in a dashiki sits at reception. Kristin Lynch, the communications director, greets me — okay, hugs me — and takes me to Booker’s office, where we say hello to his chief of staff, Matt Klapper, who also hugs me. Booker has not hugged me yet, but give him time. A young staffer comes in and hands Booker a brown-paper bag and tells him she managed to “score the last three” in the cafeteria. From the look of joy on his face, I imagine a bag of cheeseburgers, but, alas, it’s just celery and carrot sticks in plastic deli containers. (Booker is a vegan.) He opens one up and munches on a carrot.

Booker drags two red wingback chairs so they’re facing each other and sits down with a weary sigh. “You’re catching me on a day when I’m physically depleted,” he says. “My spirits are up, but I just campaigned for nearly every candidate in Nevada: secretary of State; guy for AG; guy running for governor; uh, Jacky Rosen, who will hopefully be my colleague; some assembly and legislative leaders. Then flew to Seattle, landed, headlined an event there, and then got right on a plane at 6 a.m. and came back.”

But even a depleted Booker is a fervid and voluble Booker. He quickly catches me up on where his mind is in the way that extroverts do reflexively and politicians usually train themselves out of. He tells me he just bumped into Bernie Sanders in the hall, and he does a good imitation of his grumbly Brooklyn accent. “He said, ‘How ya doin’?’ I said, ‘Bernie, I’m tired.’ And he goes, ‘Why are we heeh? We’re not doing any real work.’ And then he goes, ‘You know what this is about, don’t ya? This is political!’ ” By which he meant that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is keeping the Senate in session so the Democratic senators who are defending their seats during the midterm elections have less time to go home and campaign.

The hearings over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh begin in less than a week, and Booker tells me he’s thinking about releasing documentsthe Republicans have kept secret and making a fuss on live television. It’s also just a few days after John McCain died, and Booker has his former colleague on his mind. Apparently, McCain had taken a liking to him — he was the only Republican senator to come to the reception after Booker’s swearing-in ceremony five years ago and, a few days later, at Booker’s request, invited the new senator to his office for a private conversation. “He was sort of giving me a pep talk,” Booker says. “He says to me — very crassly about the Senate in general — that something like 80 percent of senators are just concerned with particularistic politics to do with their states. And he said, ‘But I see in you a statesman.’ ”

What McCain probably meant is that he saw in Booker a little of himself: Like Booker, he idled high; he was unfiltered in a way that could be entertaining but also intense, that sometimes boiled into a temper or some over-the-top expression of feeling. Much of this seemed to come from a fundamentally un-paranoid disposition, as well as a lofty patriotism that could inspire people one day and make them squirm the next. The day after McCain died, someone on cable news said, “People have soured on the idea of earnest politicians like John McCain,” and if this is true, Cory Booker is in real trouble, because he is earnest in the extreme — he talks about love and kindness and compassion and empathy all the time. He calls America “a physical manifestation of a larger conspiracy of love.”

Booker, also as McCain did, very much wants to be president: “Of course the presidency will be something I consider. It would be irresponsible not to.” And there’s a lot about Booker to suggest he would be a strong contender in the 2020 primaries and a formidable contrast to Trump. He is a popular national figure with an Obama-like trajectory: a community organizer who served for years in local politics before becoming a senator in his mid-40s. He is also, like Obama, a black politician who talks with optimism and empathy about the country’s racial divide.

But there is that question of how he rubs people. For some, his earnest demeanor is hard to believe and makes him seem, in fact, untrustworthy. A handful of my friends, mostly coastal liberals, have a dim view of Booker — and perhaps of earnestness altogether, come to think of it. They squirm when he talks about “courageous empathy” and the need not just to tolerate each other but love each other. (“Tolerance says I couldn’t care less; love says I couldn’t care more. Tolerance crosses the street when it sees you coming; love confronts love and embraces.”) I recently heard someone describe him as “too Care Bear,” and someone else describe his televised grilling in Senate hearings as “pageantry.” One woman who is engaged in liberal politics wrinkled her nose when I mentioned him recently. “He just seems a bit … programmed.”

I mention to Booker that Americans have apparently soured on earnestness. Sensing where I’m going, and not afraid to join me, he says, “It’s frustrating to me that people don’t think you can be earnest and sincere in this game anymore. My closest friends say to me, ‘When I have conversations with people, they ask that question: “Is he for real?” ’ Which I don’t understand. ‘Is he real?’ ‘Is he for real?’ I don’t understand where that question really comes from.”

Booker reminds me that he’s been dealing with accusations of inauthenticity his whole career — the carpetbagger who grew up in the wealthy white suburb and moved to the mean streets of Newark, a Rhodes Scholar determined to make a name for himself and run for mayor against an incumbent deeply rooted in the black Establishment. “Sharpe James’s whole campaign was run on I’m the real deal. ‘This guy is not for real, this guy is not authentic: not authentically black, not authentically a Newarker.’ ”

New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is likely to run for president herself, told Booker over dinner recently to be careful about second-guessing himself. “She said to me, ‘If you want to talk about love and kindness and decency, talk about those things, because it’s where you are.’ I feel like if I start poll-testing or shaping myself, where we start operating out of fear, I think that’s going to dim my light and my impact.”

Booker was on the list of 35 potential running mates for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and, according to her senior adviser, Nick Merrill, stayed in the running until the list had been winnowed to three. In fact, he was still being considered until the Thursday night before the Democratic National Convention. Clinton-Booker placards were printed up, and she went to bed that night still not having decided. “We really always thought he was a very serious candidate,” says John Podesta, who served as Clinton’s campaign chairman. “He campaigns with a kind of moral positioning, and he brought out a lot of sparkle in her.” Merrill says he was torn. “From afar, he never really did it for me,” he says. “I find the constant snapping in Senate hearings to be a little ridiculous, and the opposite of authentic. Then I saw him up close and was converted. He’s incredibly impressive.”

When I tell Booker that Clinton hadn’t decided until just before the convention, his eyes widen and he says, “Oh my God.” He didn’t know he’d gotten that close. He lets that sink in for a minute, then picks up the conversation, talking about how connected he felt to Clinton and how his sadness after she lost “wasn’t just that she would have been a great president, but also that America would have finally found out who she is.”

In May, Booker gave a talk that felt an awful lot like a stump speech, a tryout of what may very well be the central theme of a presidential campaign: connecting the dots between the low-income rural Trump voter and the inner-city poor — their “shared pain,” as he likes to say. When I tell him it reminds me of a serious version of the famous Saturday Night Live skit, a game show with poor black people and white Trump voters who have almost everything in common, he says, “I loved it! Black Jeopardy! Tom Hanks played the poor white guy!” And then he says that in the past few weeks he “went to Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois to meet with mostly Republican farmers. We didn’t alert the press, but I almost wish you were with me.”

It will surprise exactly no one if Booker begins his 2020 run as soon as the midterms are over. Americans are about to see a lot more of him, and the more they see, the more evident it will become just how unusual a politician he is. Donald Trump ran the most negative presidential campaign in history and presides over an administration drenched in hostility and cynicism. Booker is radically, almost comically out of step with this kind of politics and, on a human-being level, is unlike any person who’s made a serious bid for the presidency in our lifetime.

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SOURCE: Jonathan Van Meter 
Daily Intelligence / New York Magazine