Newark Mayor Cory Booker got caught in a moment of honesty. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Booker, an official surrogate for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, let his unequivocal disdain for negative campaigning on from both parties be known, saying, “This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides. It’s nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity. Stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. This stuff has got to stop.”
It was the type of false equivalency that in today’s political landscape signals to voters “independent thinker,” precisely what Booker has become known for as he has risen to national prominence. Drawing a parallel between shadowy right-wing groups attempting to use Obama’s relationship to firebrand preacher Reverend Jeremiah Wright (again) to discredit his capacity to serve and the Obama team’s ads attacking presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s business experience, the only experience he has offered as evidence of his ability to be president, is disingenuous. But that wasn’t Booker’s true sin.
Where he stepped into a mess that required a hastily put together YouTube video and an appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show in attempts to rectify his image was when he added: “I have to just say from a very personal level, I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity. To me, it’s just we’re getting to a ridiculous point in America. Especially that I know I live in a state where pension funds, unions and other people invest in companies like Bain Capital. If you look at the totality of Bain Capital’s record, they’ve done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses. And this, to me — I’m very uncomfortable with.”
Booker essentially went to bat for private equity, an institution that even Romney’s Republican opponents took to referring to as “vulture capitalism” during the primary race. While the Obama team has refrained from denigrating private equity in its mere existence, its message has been that Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and the type of business in which he was involved did not prepare him to tackle the economic needs of everyday Americans. Booker went on national television and contradicted that message.
Which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering, as Steve Kornacki at Salon pointed out, Wall Street and the “investor class” have been crucial backers of Booker’s political aspirations. “The allies he’s cultivated on Wall Street and in the financial industry…have made Booker a prolific fundraiser,” Kornacki writes, and given such it’s hardly shocking that he would refuse to join the progressive chorus that has chastised the finance wards in the years after the Great Recession took hold. And he’s not alone, either. Adam Serwer of Mother Jones reports former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford saying, “Private equity is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, private equity is a good thing in many, many instances,” and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell calling the attack on Bain Capital “very disappointing.”
What makes Booker’s statement resonate more than those others and what disappoints the progressives that have become his most ardent supporters is that he became popular for representing a “new” kind of politics. Here is a guy who was literally in the street trying to reduce the crime rate in his city, who braved snowstorms to shovel his neighbor’s cars out of danger, who risked his own life running into a burning house to rescue a woman, and still possessed the charisma and eloquence to speak passionately to progressive issues like same-sex marriage advocacy. He knows how to use social media to connect with his constituents and hold civil discourse with those with whom he may disagree. And he’s just damn likeable, right? Here’s the politician America had been waiting for, the one who would not allow partisan bickering prevent him from getting a much needed cash infusion to the school system or the potholes filled on the street. He can talk the talk, but he has little time for chatting because he’s always on the go, doing what needs to be done.
Now, with his public bowing to the financiers largely responsible for the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, he’s become just another politician. A gifted, highly intelligent, and seemingly good-hearted politician, but a politician nonetheless.
This isn’t unlike 2008 when then presidential candidate Obama rejected public campaign financing in favor of raising money on his own, a move that gave him the financial advantage he needed to compete in states not typically in play for Democratic candidates. Though he obviously didn’t lose any major support, his decision did cause a backlash among those upset that he would go back on his word to take public campaign money and that he would feed into the notion that money rules politics by out-fundraising and outspending his opponent. The image of the perfect progressive was shattered.
It’s the nature of the American political system. We conflate democracy with capitalism, intelligence with wealth, and success with winning, and thus create a political class obsessed with raising money and winning elections. And who has the most money to donate to a political campaign out of pocket? Those who deal in money for a living. It isn’t abstract math or much of a secret.
Booker wasn’t off message, he was just telling the truth about where the money comes from. That’s disappointing if you’ve bought into the mythology of him as a new breed of politician, but what politician can survive without the support of monied interests under the current system? Yet, we want to believe that there is “the one,” much the same way so-called centrists fetishize Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City or progressives attached their hopes to Obama in ‘08, who can fix what ails us. We’re still looking for Mr. Smith to go to Washington and deliver the epic speech on the Senate floor that melts the cold hearts, rights the wrongs, and rescues our politics from itself. The problem with searching for a single messianic figure to swoop in save the day is it underestimates the extent of the destruction. If it were possible to send Mr. (or Mrs.) Smith to the capital and rectify our government, surely it would have been done by now. But we continue to prop up a system that would never allow for someone of such ideological purity to gain any true influence. I don’t buy the line of thinking that both parties are exactly the same, but there are only two major political parties and both of them rely on the spoils of capitalism to operate. That’s just the way it is.
Booker shouldn’t have had to backtrack because in that moment he was being honest. This won’t hurt his political future and won’t be a setback for the Obama campaign. It will largely be forgotten by the time the election actually takes place five-and-a-half months from now. But for the time being Booker will no longer be looked upon as Superman, but as a politician seeking to win elections. Exactly what he has been all along.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Visit his official website or follow him on Twitter.