I think Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey befuddles political commentators because he doesn’t neatly fit into preconceived boxes. He can’t be buttonholed as a “liberal” or a “black” politician, nor can he even be called a typical Garden State pol. Perhaps Emma Green was correct when she wrote that Silicon Valley loves him because he speaks their language and “what the tech world wants will just make sense to him.”

It certainly matters that Mark Zuckerberg donated a $100 million to Newark schools while Booker was serving as that city’s mayor, and when Zuckerberg’s political action committee advocates on behalf of the Keystone XL pipeline I think we can assume that Booker will at least give them a hearing. It could be that these kind of connections help explain why Booker was one of the last Democratic senators to take a position on the pipeline, although it should also be remembered that he ultimately chose not to support the bill before the Senate.

It’s easy to forget that the Keystone XL pipeline divides the left on more than just corporate vs. environmental lines. Many unions urged passage of the bill, which helps explain why several Mid-Atlantic politicians with close ties to labor voted to authorize the project. In the Philadelphia area, the Democratic machine is embodied by Rep. Bob Brady (Philly) and Rep. Donald Norcross (Camden), both of whom voted for the bill in the House. They were joined by labor-friendly Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey. New Jersey Democrats tend to be liberal on social issues but also very responsive to both labor and the financial industry, which made the vote on Keystone XL something more than a no-brainer. If you accept that unions are a crucial and indispensable component of the Progressive Movement, the proper “progressive” position on the vote wasn’t as clear as you might like to believe, particularly because the unions were not united.

The debate in Congress was about more than whether or not the pipeline should be built. It was also about whether Congress should be in the business of bypassing the State Department and approving projects without regard for the impact research or the public comments. You could personally support the project and still vote against the bill on grounds of congressional overreach. Several senators explained their opposition in exactly this way, and for once it wasn’t necessarily just ass-covering spin.

In any case, I don’t think Booker deserves the criticism he receives from Dana Milbank for being late to commit on the issue. I don’t think he deserves the rest of Milbank’s criticisms either. Milbank’s chief criticism is that “Booker has been light with legislation and prolific with platitudes” during his brief tenure in the Senate, and is “known less for legislative labors than for frequent tweeting and selfies with colleagues.”

Booker does love platitudes, but we frankly need at least one elected official in this country willing to crusade against apathy, cynicism, and civic disengagement. I hope Booker never loses his zeal and optimism that we can make things better by getting involved. Beyond that, it seems more than unfair to blame a freshman senator for not having many legislative accomplishments, particularly in the least productive Congress since Roman days.

He has introduced legislation with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky that would reduce penalties for non-violent drug offenders. If Milbank cared to look, he’d see that Booker has introduced legislation repeatedly, e.g., here, here, and here. He’s also lent his time to worthy causes, like Parkinson’s disease and asthma.

And he’s a vital voice and brings a key perspective to the broad range of problems we have with the prison industrial complex in this country.

I may not agree with Cory Booker all the time, but I don’t think he’s afraid of Dana Milbank, or anyone else.

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com