Cory Booker Tests the Power of His Best Performance at the Democratic Debate
Cory Booker did well on Wednesday night. He hit his talking points (a few minutes after he said that Congress should pursue the impeachment of Donald Trump, “the politics of this be damned,” his campaign e-mailed out a press release with the subject line “Politics, be damned”) and brought race into the debate in purposeful ways. During a discussion of why Trump wrested the Midwest from Democrats, in 2016, he said, “We lost the state of Michigan because everyone from Republicans to Russians were targeting the suppression of African-American voters.” He looked like he was having a good time, often breaking into a wide smile as he held his own alongside Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Several times, he played the Party peacemaker: “The person who is enjoying this debate most right now is Donald Trump,” he declared during a discussion of health care. From the way he carried himself, you could forget that he’s had trouble getting above the low single digits in the polls.
On Wednesday, viewers saw the best of Booker. He was prepared, direct. At one point, discussing immigration, Biden spoke about how America had been able to “cherry-pick from the best of every culture” before calling for green cards to be given to Ph.D. graduates. Booker, who in the run-up to the debate made it clear that he planned to attack the former Vice-President, nimbly found his angle. “This really irks me,” he said. “I heard the Vice-President say that if you got a Ph.D., you can come right into this country. Well, that’s playing into what the Republicans want: to pit some immigrants against other immigrants. ‘Some are from shithole countries, and some are from working countries.’ ” Setting aside how a hypothetical President Biden or President Booker would approach immigration policy, Booker found a real debate to have with a fellow-candidate about rhetoric and meaning. These were valuable points to make at the beginning of a primary race.
At another moment, Biden tried to bring up Booker’s record overseeing the troubled Newark, New Jersey, police department during his tenure as mayor, which is one of the reasons that the activist wing of the Democratic Party has remained cool on the senator. Booker responded by changing the subject to the question of who can speak most effectively to African-American voters. “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community,” he said. “ ‘You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.’ ” It was the kind of prepared line that can sometimes leave Booker sounding too slick. But it was clear to viewers that Biden had never heard the Kool-Aid adage.
Booker has been on the cusp of becoming a national figure for what feels like forever. He exudes a desire for national prominence so strong that it stands out even in a Presidential race. He is among the best speechifiers in the field. He has a family story that runs through integrated coal mines in Iowa and red-lined suburbs in New Jersey. He is a strong fund-raiser. The left might never come around to him—his record on policing and education while mayor of Newark, and his friendly relations with Big Tech, might insure it—and he may not figure out how to convince other voters in the Party to back him in big numbers. But the debates will continue to offer Booker a favorable showcase—he’s already qualified for the next debate, in September. For now, in a race defined by front-runners and long shots, Booker is one of the few candidates in the hazy middle ground.
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