Magazine article The American Conservative

Cory Booker's Challenge: Can He Bend His Party or Will His Party Bend Him?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Cory Booker's Challenge: Can He Bend His Party or Will His Party Bend Him?

Article excerpt

When Democrat Cory Booker became the first sitting senator ever to testify against a colleague in a cabinet confirmation hearing, he signaled more than his desire to be a civil-rights torchbearer and the chamber's racial conscience. With his clever if not audacious way of becoming part of the Jeff Sessions story, at least for a news cycle or two, Booker sent a clear message to a battered but combative post-Clinton Democratic Party desperate for champions: I'm on the team and won't be overlooked.

Until that moment on January 11, many saw Booker as a distinctive kind of Democrat--willing, sometimes even eager, to cross the aisle to join his GOP counterparts on issues such as school choice and prison reform. Thus, the assault on Sessions's bid to become attorney general struck some as a bit jarring. Not only was he willing to call Sessions, a man he had praised in the past, a potential enemy of justice; he seemed to be relishing the attention that came with it.

"The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve toward justice," declared Booker, adding that "we must bend it." He said America needs an attorney general "who is resolute and determined to bend the arc. Senator Sessions's record does not speak to that desire, intention or will." Joining him on the dais was civil-rights icon John Lewis, the Democratic congressman from Georgia, who gave his own blistering rebuke of Sessions.

While Booker's "break from tradition" was described in the media as an unprecedented, "impassioned" brief against the Alabama senator, off-stage he was a bit more generous. He was careful to acknowledge that he had worked with Sessions on a 2015 bill that would honor the 1965 civil-rights marchers to Selma with Congressional Gold Medals. And, despite what Booker called a demonstrated "hostility" toward "civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all of our citizens," he said he believed Sessions would uphold the laws if confirmed.

Some Washington observers found Booker's spotlight grab curious, with him choosing the entrenchment of party politics after he had conspicuously embraced bipartisanship during the Obama administration. Did this signify, they wondered, that he was planning a 2020 presidential run? The intrigue deepened when, days later, he was photographed at the Women's March on inauguration weekend, wearing a pink knit Planned Parenthood scarf and rubbing elbows with writer-producer-feminist Lena Dunham.

Not surprisingly many Republicans turned to cynicism. "Here was a guy who worked with Jeff Sessions and turned on him--it was absolutely ridiculous and very, very transparent," said Adam Geller, a New Jersey-based Republican pollster who worked on the Trump campaign. He added he detected "political expediency."

Supporters viewed Booker's action, however, as proof that the 48-year-old senator and former Newark mayor is in no one's pocket, that he hews to his own moral compass. "I know that some people think that Booker was showboating for the benefit of the party base, but I think that in the case of Senator Sessions it was a genuine expression of moral indignation," said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University. "I just think the Sessions nomination got to him."

If so, the same could be said of the nomination of Betsy DeVos, with whom Booker worked on school-choice issues in New Jersey. During Senate hearings on DeVos's confirmation as education secretary, Booker called her responses "inadequate, unsatisfactory," and ultimately voted against her, much to the chagrin of the school-choice community. "He's turned into a partisan political player," asserted school choice advocate Peter Denton in an interview with New Jersey reporter Jonathan Salant. "It's extraordinarily disappointing."

Not surprisingly, Booker chafes at the suggestion that he was worried about the scorn of Democratic colleagues or was motivated by the risk of losing millions of dollars in future campaign donations from the vehemently anti-DeVos teachers' unions. …

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