After two years of speculation about which of them is best suited to bring the Trump era to a merciful end in 2020, Democratic politicians who have been spending their free time forming exploratory committees, soliciting donations, giving inspiring speeches, and hanging out in Iowa diners are at last announcing formal bids to become the next president of the United States. Over the next few weeks, we'll take a look at each of the front-runners: Who are they? What do they stand for? And in order to have a shot at winning the nomination they seek, what tough questions will they have to answer first?
1. Can he convince us he isn’t corny?
For many, Booker’s announcement elicited a sort of gentle bemusement, because as anyone who pays attention to politics knows well, Cory Booker has been running for president for a long time. He was running in 2016, when he was doing his damndest to get picked as Hillary Clinton’s running mate. He was running in 2017, when he basically workshopped a stump speech during Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearings while the nominee, blinking in confusion, sat and waited for questioning to begin. And he was running last year, when his “I am Spartacus” moment during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings so grated on Republican committee members that it prompted one to grumble, "Running for president is no excuse for violating the rules of the Senate."
It’s not a bad thing to want to be president. A lot of people want to be president! But the same social media-forward, made-for-virality persona that Booker cultivated to become one of the most recognizable elected officials in America well before he even set foot in the Senate—seriously, how many mayors of mid-sized mid-Atlantic cities could you name right now?—has also earned him a reputation as one of the thirstier politicians in Washington. In an election in which voters are looking for someone who exhibits the elusive, possibly-apocryphal quality of “authenticity,” he might prove to be a little too extra for the moment.
2. Is he progressive enough for a Democratic Party lurching to the left?
Like just about every presidential hopeful not named Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, Booker has a history of championing certain causes that many voters, especially in the primaries, are unlikely to hold in high esteem. As an Obama surrogate in 2012, Booker famously went on TV to plead for Democrats to “stop attacking private equity”; it is probably not a coincidence that he has received a ton of big-money donations from Wall Street, where many of his constituents go to work every day, over the years. In 2017, he opposed a Bernie Sanders-backed bill that would have paved the way for importing lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada, which critics linked to the lucrative financial assistance he’s enjoyed from that industry, too.
Like most modern progressive candidates for elected office, Booker has already pledged not to accept corporate PAC donations for his 2020 bid. The worry, however, is that the real Cory Booker is the one who boosted his profile by developing cozy relationships with the super-rich, not the one who only swore off their money when doing so became a progressive shibboleth. The fact that Booker was willing to tolerate the excesses of the financial and pharmaceutical industries, the argument goes, signals that those issues might be important blind spots for him as president.
3. What does his mayoral record really look like?
Unlike many of his fellow Democrats, Booker has experience as a chief executive: He served for seven years as the snow-shoveling, dog-rescuing, literally-saving-a-woman-from-a-house-fire mayor of Newark—where he chose to live in a notorious housing project to draw attention to challenges his lower-income constituents faced—before winning a Senate seat in 2013.
His tenure certainly raised Newark’s profile outside the tri-state area. Yet the results are...a mixed bag. Violent crime decreased for a few years, then rebounded. Development and investment picked up, but mostly downtown, and the telltale signs of gentrification followed. The police department entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice stemming from an investigation that began on his watch. A city agency was dissolved after nine individuals were indicted or sentenced in a seven-figure bribery scandal. (He served as ex officio chair on its board of trustees, but never attended a meeting and was not charged with any crimes.)
The $100 million gift from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, earmarked for Newark’s struggling public education system, was a real coup at the time Booker secured it. (Again, how many mayors of mid-sized mid-Atlantic cities have sufficient clout to score nine-figure donations from Silicon Valley billionaires?) The stewardship of that money remains a contentious topic in Newark, though. And Booker’s longtime fondness for school choice—he was a keynote speaker at a 2012 conference on the subject organized by Betsy DeVos—is the sort of thing for which he’ll have some explaining to do in 2020.
As is always the case for chief executives, concluding whether or not Booker was “successful” as mayor depends a lot on how you choose to define the term. But his presidential aspirations mean that his record will now be subject to heavier-than-ever scrutiny—and when your job was “turning around a struggling city gutted by decades of political corruption and urban decay,” there will be plenty out there for opponents to characterize as problematic.
4. What can he specifically offer that the other Democratic challengers can’t?
Set aside, for a moment, Booker’s qualifications for the position he seeks. When it comes to the task of winning over primary voters—an important prerequisite for winning the nomination—he has fierce competition for support among key demographics that might otherwise be inclined to back him. Booker speaks fluent Spanish, and conducted an entire Spanish-language interview with Univision as part of his campaign rollout. But so does Texas native Julián Castro, and Booker’s efforts to mobilize Hispanic voters in California will likely be undercut by the presence in the race of Kamala Harris. He backs Medicare for All; Bernie Sanders literally wrote the bill. He has endorsed the Green New Deal; at this point, so has just about everyone else.
President Obama relied heavily on young people and African-Americans—two groups to which a young black candidate like Booker might appeal—to deliver him the nomination in 2008. But as FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. points out, since 60 percent of black Democratic voters are women, they might be more inclined to make history by nominating Harris, a black woman, than by lining up behind him. And bids from Bernie Sanders or (worst of all) Beto O’Rourke would make it tough to bank on the enthusiasm of Millennials to deliver the electors he needs.
The existence of a crowded, diverse field isn’t Booker’s fault. But being many people’s second or third choice isn’t a viable path to becoming the party’s first choice.
5. Does anyone even want to find “common ground” in politics anymore?
Even as Democrats feel more emboldened than ever to express outrage at the outrageous things President Trump does, Booker has stuck to the sort of optimistic, we’re-all-Americans ethos that made the party's last president famous. He speaks often of “universal love” and “radical empathy,” and purports to harbor those things even for the man who, if Booker wins the nod, is unlikely to reciprocate. “I love Donald Trump,” he said in 2016, after the the GOP nominee made fun of his speech at the DNC. “I don't want to answer his hate with hate. I’m going to answer it with love. I’m not going to answer his darkness with darkness. I love him.”
Two years later, this approach rankles some voters who see hate and love as a false choice, and view Booker’s insistent embrace of the latter as a way of watering down his criticism of a president who deserves it. In one of his first interviews after announcing, Booker was asked if he believes Trump—who tried to ban Muslims, and called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, and referred to majority-black countries as “shitholes”—is racist. The candidate, stubborn as ever, extended the benefit of the doubt.
Booker isn’t the only Democratic politician (or 2020 hopeful) to field this question. But asserting that a white person is “racist” is a more complex proposition for Booker than it is for a white candidate, because black politicians know skittish white voters are more likely to interpret that act as accusatory—and to withhold their support as a result. His cautiousness here might be more attributable to this burden he bears than to actual doubt about the answer. (I do not think, in other words, that Booker actually believes Trump is not a racist.) This is one of those read-the-room issues, though; if voters want a candidate who acknowledges what the president plainly is, Booker will quickly learn how far (or not) the power of positive thinking can take him.