Bye-Bye, Booker

Cory Booker
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s presidential bid is over. On January 13 he announced that he was suspending his long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination, citing a lack of funding and an inability to attract enough polling support to qualify for the debate stage.

In the post-mortem to his campaign, it is worth considering whether his performance would have benefitted from a campaign less devoted to inspirational rhetoric, and more focused on the details of his policy record, including education reform.

Booker never broke 5% support in polls in either Iowa or New Hampshire, and his already tepid support had dwindled in recent weeks in both states. Perhaps most troubling for his electoral prospects is that as an African-American who centered his campaign on a promise to help bridge the racial divide in America, he appeared unable to cut into Joe Biden’s strong support among black voters, an important Democratic constituency that constitutes more than 50% of the Democratic electorate in the early primary state of South Carolina.

It is an open question whether a more policy-focused campaign would have made a difference. Although big on inspirational themes, Booker’s campaign rallies and debate performances were notably short on policy details. This included a reluctance to play up his prior support, most notably as Mayor of Newark, for school choice and education vouchers, and his efforts to reform the state’s public education system. That electoral strategy was on full display in a campaign appearance in October on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, New Hampshire. Although Booker did not completely ignore policy during this appearance, he eschewed any detailed discussion of specifics, and his only reference to education policy came in response to audience questions.

Instead, he used the Dartmouth address to emphasize the need to inspire voters to join a moral crusade on behalf of “doing big things” similar to that which drove the civil rights movement. After opening with a humorous take on being recruited on a football scholarship to Stanford University — “I had a 4.0 and a 1500 score – 4.0 rushing average and 1500 yards gained” — Booker provided a brief biographical overview, centered on how he left the law profession (he earned a J.D. from Yale) to draw on his “Ph.D.” earned in the “streets of Newark” and how local politics taught him the importance of grass-roots organizing as a means toward achieving political change. He reminded his audience that he is the only candidate who chose to live in a low-income inner-city predominantly black and brown community. It was a biographical reference point he would return to later in his talk, when discussing his family’s roots facing racial prejudice in the South.

Again and again Booker stressed the need to develop a mass-based movement united by common themes of empathy and a shared sense of purpose. The 2020 election, he said, was not about “beating Trump – it’s about uniting Americans.” The way to do so, he emphasized, was not by sacrificing Democratic values, but by doubling down on them. He reminded his audience that civil rights activists “didn’t beat Bull Connor with big firehoses and dogs.” Similarly, he said, we need to have bigger aspirations than simply beating Trump. “When we do big things we unify,” he proclaimed, adding that “we must know what we are fighting for, and not just what we are against.” He concluded his talk, voice rising, by proclaiming that “This is a moral moment. This nation has always been a light unto other nations.” As he ended, the largely student audience rose to give him a sustained standing ovation.

Despite the uplifting rhetoric, however, Booker’s speech was conspicuous for its lack of detailed policy discussion. He did not ignore policy altogether; instead, he ticked off a series of issues – climate change, child poverty, health care and gun violence – that he said would be priorities in his administration. But his talk was notably short on the details of how to achieve these goals, and it was noteworthy for the absence of any reference to the education policies that played such a prominent role in his time as Mayor of Newark, and helped fuel his rise to national prominence.

Education did come up during the question and answer session. The second audience question asked Booker what he would do to ensure all families had access to high quality pre-K education. After noting the importance of this period in a child’s brain development, Booker discussed policies designed to decrease childhood mortality: adopting universal prenatal care, expanding health care access and increasing access to paid family leave. The final audience question asked his views on student debt. Booker said he supported full debt forgiveness for any college graduate who went into public service. Beyond these two responses, however, he ignored education, refraining from any discussion regarding his prior support for school vouchers or charter schools.

The absence of any reference to education policy was not an aberration. On the debate stage, he also adopted an inspirational stance focused on unifying the country. Those policies he did discuss, such as immigration, criminal justice reform and national gun licensing, were ones that fit more comfortably within the progressive posture he adopted as a presidential candidate. But with the progressive “lane” already occupied by candidates, including fellow Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, it is worth considering whether Booker might have done better by focusing more on the details of his policy accomplishments, including education reform, in New Jersey. As media accounts noted, Booker achieved national prominence in part because of his ability to work with Republicans, including Governor Chris Christie to help reform Newark’s failing public school system. This included persuading Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to contribute $100 million toward educational reform. Polls suggest that a large majority of likely Democratic primary voters, including African-Americans, support policies, such as charter schools, designed to increase access to educational choices. Interestingly, Booker praised the Obama administration’s accomplishments – “I miss Obama,” he smiled, adding, “I miss him too” — but pointedly made no mention of Obama’s success in significantly expanding the number of students attending charter schools. Of course, charter schools and education vouchers are not without controversy; they are opposed by powerful teachers’ unions, and Booker may not have wanted to give his Democratic opponents — several of whom have come out against charter schools — an opening to link him to policies supported by Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (In November Booker did publish a New York Times op-ed touting his support for charter schools.)

Whatever the merits of his strategy, Booker’s decision to suspend his campaign leaves a former governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, as the only African American still in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. However, Booker is seeking reelection to his New Jersey Senate seat. He is also frequently mentioned as a potential vice-presidential candidate. So he may yet have an opportunity to revisit his strategy and weigh in on education policy.

Matt Dickinson is a professor of political science at Middlebury College.

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