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Liberal pundits don't like Cory Booker. Can the Democrat still succeed?
The Newark mayor easily won his Democratic primary, despite losing the support of the lefty commentariat
Newark Mayor Cory Booker speaks at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. The rising star has been branded as something of a phony by liberal pundits.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker speaks at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. The rising star has been branded as something of a phony by liberal pundits. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
P

eople who know nothing else about Cory Booker know that the 44-year-old Newark mayor is going big places.

The next big entry on his résumé will very likely be junior U.S. senator from New Jersey, after Booker easily won Tuesday's Democratic primary for the special election to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). How easily? Booker took 59 percent in a four-person race against two U.S. congressmen and the speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly.

Booker's opponent in the October election will be Republican Steven Lonegan, a former mayor of Bogota, N.J., who promises to run a vigorous "line-in-the-sand campaign between a conservative and an extreme liberal." That's an odd strategy to employ in New Jersey, which hasn't voted to send a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.

But such a campaign will also probably rankle a good number of liberals. Given that Booker will replace a Republican stand-in senator appointed by Gov. Chris Christie, and that Booker will be only the fourth African American elected to the U.S. Senate, "you would expect that progressives would be excited by Booker's candidacy and his eventual rise to the Senate," says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. You would be wrong.

Salon's Alex Pareene wrote perhaps the most widely cited liberal takedown of Booker, but he's hardly alone. The liberal critique of Booker is essentially that he's too chummy with Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley moguls, is using those connections and his mayoral perch to enrich himself, and tries to hide his elitist and corporatist tendencies by relentlessly and narcissistically promoting himself as a liberal champion of the little guy.

The progressives are basically right, says David Weigel at Slate. "A Booker victory will mean the replacement of a reliable, plodding progressive with a less reliable neoliberal." In fact, Weigel says, "the only progressive argument for Booker" is that he's black and "the long-term interests of a party that depends on huge minority turnout adding to white liberal turnout are served by promoting nonwhite stars."

But not every liberal is so down on Booker. The Newark mayor "might vote like a Goldman Sachs executive and break John McCain's record for appearing on Sunday morning shows," says Martin Longman at Booman Tribune, but in the Senate, he'll get stuff done. If you're a liberal and "he agrees with you on an issue, he's going to be a valuable advocate."

His parents were some of the first black executives at IBM, so Booker wasn't raised in the Hood. He also wasn't sent to any elite prep school. He was a star football player at a well-regarded public high school. He was good enough and smart enough to land a gig at Stanford University, where he became class president. He won a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Oxford, where he received honors. Then he got a law degree from Yale. Along the way, he found time to do charitable work wherever he went. And then he won a seat on Newark's city council and started butting heads with some seriously corrupt politicians, including the joke of a mayor, Sharpe James.

It's true that spending part of your life studying with kids at Stanford, Yale, and Oxford will color how you view things, but let's not pretend that Cory Booker hasn't been excellent at pretty much everything he's done so far in his life. [Booman Tribune]

And even if many lefty columnists and bloggers still hate Booker, the Newark mayor probably doesn't need to worry. "Their sentiments don't seem to be shared by the voters," says Outside the Beltway's Mataconis. Booker's poll numbers have stayed consistently high despite attacks from his more liberal rivals. Credit Booker's name recognition and carefully curated "aura of celebrity," Mataconis says.

...there's something of a disconnect between these progressive pundits and the voting public. Much like pundits on the right have their ideal candidates, writers such as Pareene do as well, and Booker quite obviously doesn't fit into that definition. Perhaps it's because he hasn't said the magic words on NSA surveillance or some other issue.... Perhaps it's just because there was never really any suspense in this election and they needed something write about. Whatever the reason, the animus toward Booker on the left has been more than a little surprising especially considering that he is going to be a reliable Democratic vote for as long as he's in the Senate. Given that it's New Jersey and Booker is relatively young, could be quite a long time. [Outside the Beltway]

That's why liberals are breaking out the Sturm und Drang now, says Elspeth Reeve at The Atlantic Wire:

The point doesn't seem to be to stop his election to the Senate — that looks impossible — but to make the case for why he shouldn't climb any higher in Democratic politics.... For the Booker un-endorsers, what's at stake in the New Jersey special election is the idea of who the Democratic standard-bearer will be after President Obama. [Atlantic Wire]

Booker, as it turns out, doesn't really seem to disagree with his liberal critics. Raymond Hernandez explains at The New York Times:

As [Booker] campaigned, he portrayed what his opponents saw as a weakness — that he was insufficiently liberal on issues important to Democrats like gun control and unions — as a strength. He argued that his pragmatic brand of politics, favoring practical solutions over ideology, had enabled him to lift the fortunes of Newark, the state's largest city. [New York Times]

Since he didn't have to fend of a strong primary challenge from the left, Booker did what most politicians would do positioning themselves for a general election: He ran as a uniter, not a divider. As we've learned, it takes two to unite, but few big-time politicians have ever been punished for pitching that ideal to the masses.

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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