Friday, February 17, 2017

The Post On Cory Booker

The first month of The Era Of Trump have been something else right? Seriously, to even compile of list of The Leader's greatest hits would require something of a mammoth blog post in it's own right.

And we're just one month in! Anyway here's a post about politics that doesn't focus on the 45th President.

Despite the fact that political journalists love to complain about campaigns starting to soon, rest assured the "invisible primary" part of the 2020 presidential election is already well underway for the Democrats, and indeed the way Gallup's numbers keeps slipping maybe soon on the GOP side as well.

What does this mean? Well despite the fact that I got the 2016 contest very wrong on the GOP side, I still think a sort of party focused look at Democratic presidential nomination contest that cycle held up pretty well (yes I'm borrowing from the ideas outlined in that-book-political-journalists-love-to-mock). To be sure the central thesis of the book, that political parties control their presidential nominations in the modern era, is obviously not totally correct. However, in the grand academic tradition of "just because our theory failed doesn't make it totally useless" I think the frame work here is very helpful for thinking about the race on the Democratic side.

American political parties generally want to do two big things when it comes to nominating a presidential candidate (in theory). That is find someone who could conceivably win, and find someone who can be trusted to stick to the party's beliefs and agenda if they get to the White House. (Insert snide comments about Hillary and Trump in the comment section now.)

But how do they do this? Well they do this by coordinating around nominees they want and against those they don't. That is to say that the "expanded party network" composed of formal party bodies, elected officials, campaign and governing professionals, allied interest groups, and dedicated activists decided fairly early on in the 2016 cycle (say 2014-2015) to back Hillary Clinton. Sure Bernie Sanders ran an impressive campaign raising over $200 million dollars and winning a lot of states in his home base of New England and western caucus states (like Minnesota) where white liberals dominate the caucus process, that is true. But then again he was never able to overcome Hillary advantage in with things like, going in order, state party chair endorsements, congressional and gubernatorial endorsements, the overwhelming majority of people who work in Democratic politics for a living, labor unions, and black political big wigs in South Carolina (or insert of southern state of your choice).

Yes people vote and caucus and these outcomes matters, but the idea that it was all up in the air until May (or whenever) is pretty wrong, the stuff that happened behind the scenes on the Democratic side in 2015 (or 2014 through December of 2012 for that matter) was the more important factor.

In other words maybe you think this means the party doesn't "decide" (or maybe never did!) but you'd have to agree that the conventional political journalism standard of "we all just have to wait until the returns from New Hampshire come in" isn't very helpful. At least on the Donkey Party side of things.

Which brings me to Cory Booker. I think it's pretty clear that Booker has ambitions above and beyond being the junior senator from New Jersey. So where does that put him in terms of the 2020 race?

Well trying to figure out what the "expanded party network" of the Democratic Party is thinking at any given time is pretty difficult for outsiders, in fact it's pretty difficult inside the party too! Honestly I hope to try and learn a little more by participating in caucuses here in Minneapolis for the 2017 municipal elections as well as the ones for the 2018 governor's race a year from now to try. Indeed, since I write a very important blog and whine on Twitter to political scientists with even more important blogs I'm almost a party actor? Right!? Right!?

Seriously though I think Booker has a lot of the conventional strong points you'd want in a presidential candidate. He is very charismatic, and he can give a pretty good speech. Plus journalists by and large really like him, which in the aftermath of 2016 seems to matter a lot more than I thought. I'd also say he has a strong base in a big state population-wise that he's very popular in, and can raise a huge amount of money.

His weaknesses? Well that gets right back to my expanded party list from above. State party chairs and other such big wigs? Booker bucked party politics early in his career but I don't see what would stop him from kissing the ring when it came to the Democratic lords of Poweshiek County. I don't see why Democratic representatives or state legislators would say no (unlike the no's to Bernie Sanders who wasn't a Democrat). Campaign and governing professionals would have no problem with a president Booker in my view. And as a charismatic and driven guy I could see him winning his chunk of activists.

So where the problem? Party aligned interests groups, in other words with organized labor. Booker has always had a difficult relationship with unions, lots of lefty types might chalk this up to being a "neoliberal" or whatever, but I think it has more to do with his political career. Watch Street Fight, the great documentary about his improbable first run to be mayor of Newark in 2002 to see what I'm talking about. Here is a man who grew up fairly well off in the suburbs (his parents were some of the first black executives at IBM) and then went off to be a football star at Stanford. Then this guy decides to go into Newark politics for some reason.

One thing that becomes very clear during the documentary is that basically all the powers that be in Newark are lined up against Booker and with the then 16 year incumbent named Sharpe James (who'd latter go to prison for corruption). This includes police brass telling him he can't canvass in public housing buildings, police detectives threatening his staff, and all sorts of old school machine style political dirty tricks on election day. Another big thing that comes up is that the Newark unions lined up behind James as well, which of course is what unions often will do when it comes to long term incumbents in east coast municipal politics. The devil you know, as they say.

This isn't to say labor is wrong and Booker is right, indeed while I'm more skeptical of teacher's unions than many liberals I get why the NEA and AFT wouldn't like a guy who supported charter schools as a mayor very much. And yes it makes sense for even progressive unions to back long term incumbents like James that they have a working relationship with. That's just how politics works. The point is Booker has had a dysfunctional relationship with labor from the beginning and that's the baseline.

Anyway, if I'm on Booker's kitchen cabinet and he's seriously considering a run (maybe he's not and I'm wrong about something yet again) I'd say one of his bigger political challenges over the next few years is mending fences with labor.

That's a big thing to watch if you want to see if he's serious about running and has a good chance of winning the nomination.


  1. Interesting post. Didn't Booker have some kind of scandal in New Jersey? After a quick google, the Daily Beast has an article about how despite his personal magnetism he was something of an unsuccessful mayor and was tangentially related to a corruption scandal in New Jersey (shocker based on their ubiquity in Jersey). Regardless it is interesting that he replaced a corrupt politician and prosecuted him for his crimes. He could definitely beat that drum now, perhaps all the way into the White House.

  2. Booker as mayor is a great question, his critics long contended he was all sizzle and no steak. I get that, and I'm not here to defend him, but it does raise the question of "what does a successful mayor of a dysfunctional city look like?" One of the things 12 year long mayor of Minneapolis R.T. Rybak talks about in his book "Pothole Confidential" is that looking back a lot of his long term successes we're slow to form and not necessarily planned. That is he didn't sit down at his desk in the spring of 2002 and say "let's engineer a huge property boom in eastern downtown along Washington Avenue" but none the less this was something he helped bring about,although it took more than a decade. In other words yes Booker wasn't able to fix Newark overnight, but that's because "turning the battleship" so to speak takes a long time. Having said that I get where Booker's critics are coming from.