The New York Times editorial board placed a feather in Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s cap last week, endorsing him in the imminent Democratic primary for the Senate seat once held by the late Frank Lautenberg. David Sirota, in his characteristic slightly-unhinged-but-basically-on-point manner, blanched at the paper of record’s explicit confession that it views Booker’s “coziness with the moneyed class” as an “asset” for which he does not deserved to be attacked by opponents. Deferring to Mr. Sirota, I won’t retread that here—let’s just say it was bizarre and revealing, though not all that surprising, sadly. What was a little surprising was the paper’s decision to so forcefully support a candidate whom one of their reporters recently critiqued (in an actually fairly dishonest way) and is now in the process of skipping to the Senate on the strength of his fame and fundraising prowess. Endorsing Booker has the same effect as not endorsing anyone—he’s that inevitable at this point (the primary is next Tuesday, August 13). And not only is it too strenuous, it thoughtlessly exposed the Times to charges of both elitism (at the hands of Sirota et al.) and hypocrisy (given the prior coverage). Endorsing one of his seemingly quixotic yet eminently qualified opponents would have saved them the trouble, and more importantly, brought some intrigue and dialogue to a race where they have thus far been blocked out by Booker’s megawatt media stardom.
It’s not like Booker is so awful. From a good-liberal perspective he’s a mixed bag at worst. (It bears mention that he is one of few quasi-national figures who is willing to openly talk about the war on drugs and describe it as a failure. Given that he is a black mayor of a crime-ridden urban center, this shouldn’t be that refreshing, but in the world we live in, it is, so credit where it is due.) But he is very much a politician, ambition coming off him in waves, and for all of his internet buzz, he’s more Serious Man than progressive rock star when it comes to his political core and the company he keeps. He is friends with Mark Zuckerberg (from whom he extracted $100 million in capital investment for Newark public schools), Arianna Huffington, and lots of big names on Wall Street, and speaks the “language of M.B.A. spirituality.” He is constantly out of the office to appear on talk shows, give commencement speeches, and pontificate at ideas festivals and corporate retreats, where people who understand the virtue of his telling Barack Obama to “stop attacking private equity” can commiserate with him. His ubiquity in both mainstream and social media has at times bordered on self-parody and resulted in the kind of hero-worship following normally reserved for presidential candidates and Elizabeth Warren types. The son of his would-be predecessor, Sen. Lautenberg, called him a “show horse” as opposed to a “workhorse” like his father, at which Booker tellingly scoffed: “That slant of argument worked really well for John McCain.” He has, on that note, spent his Senate “campaign” bashfully denying any intention to run for president in 2016, but thank you for asking, and addressed the question during a Reddit AMA with pitch-perfect self-effacement:
Yes! Unequivocally I would consider running for President of the New Jersey Star Trek Club in 2016. I have been a lifelong Trekker and to run for such an important position would be the fulfillment of a childhood dream – up there with defending the Earth from The Borg… Now if you were talking about President of the United States… please. 44 people have held that position in the history of our country. We need to stop looking at that as the be all and end all of elected service. This country needs more people that focus on where they are and the urgent call to service before us. In fact, if we were to be honest, were [sic] do we need greater leaders right now – the White House or Congress. I believe Congress. I hope to join that great body and am strongly considering a run to do just that. My focus and passion right now has more to do with serving Newark in 2013 than anything happening in 2016. Oh and “Boldly Go for Booker For Enterprise Captain 2016!”
“Gosh,” read the top-voted reply to his comment, “the dude is an absolute stud.”
Thus my confusion and disappointment with the New York Times’ parallel affirmation of studliness. Their skin-deep assessment of Booker’s qualifications—offering as proof of his reformism the willingness to live in poor neighborhoods and ride along with city police; referring to his “unconventional” leadership style with the megastory of him saving a woman from a burning house; congratulating him for maintaining a working relationship with his political near-twin, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican; claiming outright that his fame will make him a better legislator—is a whiff. It regurgitates every conventional-wisdom banality about Booker; it would not be out of place in a Buzzfeed listicle alongside a series of llama GIFs. (“He wants to battle obesity, and the guns that kill and maim so many.” “He would bring a sense of reality and some street-level experience.”) So there are multiple levels of pointlessness here: the message is not just “you should definitely vote for the prohibitive frontrunner,” but also “vote for Cory Booker because he is Cory Booker, famous person.” Here, let me Buzzfeed-ify that for you.
A New York Times endorsement of, say, Rep. Rush Holt, a longtime congressman who would become the only member of the Senate with a scientific background and has made climate change and civil liberties the cornerstones of his campaign, or of Rep. Frank Pallone, another House veteran who has strong labor backing and (as the times pointed out) was an author of the Affordable Care Act, would have been one actually worth making. Even if it couldn’t change the campaign’s outcome, it might have brought some interesting conversation about inevitability to Monday’s Democratic debate (which Booker deigned to attend, for a change). It might have given a platform to any of the issues listed above (or any non-superficial issues at all), not to mention to the other candidates themselves, who have been devoid of media coverage in the abbreviated campaign. It might have been good reading from what Sirota called “an allegedly liberal editorial board” that challenged its readership, probably largely in Booker’s wheelhouse already, to reevaluate what makes a good legislator, and a good progressive, in addition to just a good speaker and fundraiser. And if nothing else, it might have pushed a future Senator Booker to take a page from Holt’s or Pallone’s books when it comes to questions of, oh, say, “coziness with the moneyed class.” But it didn’t.
It’s unlikely that Booker will take the head-down approach that has been the playbook of other already-famous senators. “The way Ted Cruz has lit up the right in his first 9 months, don’t be surprised if Booker becomes a liberal counterweight to Cruz,” writes NBC’s First Read team. “He’s unlikely to pursue the strategy that Hillary, Franken and Elizabeth Warren have all pursued or are pursuing and that is to keep a low profile in his first term. That’s not how Booker ticks.” Surely there are Democrats who think that we could use a Cruz of our own, and lucky for them, they are 99% certain to get one. But Cruz had to fight hard to win his primary. Celebs shouldn’t get free passes just because they are celebs. Beyond the weird moneyed-politics-is-just-fine-with-us thing, it seems odd and frankly lazy that the New York Times would want to issue one to a onetime target of unflattering coverage that painted Booker as a shamelessly ambitious, win-at-all-costs type. It appears the editorial board, by flattering the senator-in-waiting, is simply trying to win his favor.
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