At Booker HQ, Obama-Weary Democrats Chase Same Old Hope and Change

Booker gives his team a soaring speech on the power of love that would have warmed the heart of anyone who has never heard of Barack Obama. 

“Hey, you!” A friendly cab driver waved us into his car, smiling. Within seconds of opening his door, two other men approached the cab, attempting to shout at us with some cordiality but betraying their wrath at the first driver for “stealing” clientele. The extended, somewhat concerning shouting match—which would have won someone only $10—almost made us late for the speech of the night.

The dog-eat-dog madness of Newark’s taxi economy stood in stark contrast to the welcoming, celebratory atmosphere of the night’s destination: Senator-elect Cory Booker’s victory party at the majestic New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The Newark Mayor soundly defeated Republican contender Steve Lonegan last night in an election defined by a series of accusations against the mayor: that he never lived in Newark, that he fabricated constituent stories to embellish his work, that his relationships with constituents on social media should be questioned when appropriate. But none of that was present at his celebration, which felt more like a time warp to the 2008 Democratic primary than anything happening two terms into the Obama administration.

With what often felt like the entire Bon Jovi discography playing in the lobby (this might be an optimistic affair, but it’s still New Jersey), supporters, volunteers, and assorted curious folk waded into and out of the large hall. College students, loud and wide-eyed, comprised the most prominent demographic at the event. They clustered together, jammering excitedly about Booker’s speech and the grandness of such a party. As they exited, one young man turned his insuppressible smile to a companion and exclaimed, “it’s like, we saw a guy who was elected senator—in front of us!” Others merely waved pom-poms and tried to mingle with the older faces. One left a pre-written paper with the sentence "I #voted4Cory because" on a table, having finished the sentence with "he cares."

The stark contrast between the large groups of young, glowing faces of college-aged volunteers and the world-weary wrinkles of NJ political operatives shone most near the table selling Booker paraphernalia—a cynic’s favorite spot. The most expensive bit of swag at the table, not too surprisingly, was an “@corybooker” t-shirt ($30). The more frugal could spend half that amount for a onesie. No one seemed particularly to mind.

The older people in attendance were evenly split between the rugged faces of senior campaign staff and Newark area residents in colorful hats. Booker suffers from no gender gap. Said residents in colorful hats, mostly women, outdid even the college students in boisterous cheer—notably, one woman, sitting alone in the lobby watching Booker’s speech, shouted at the screen every time he said something with which she agreed, usually a simple “amen!” Her hat was golden to match her dress. Another group of women spent a half hour photographing themselves in front of the campaign bus. “This is a moment!” yelled one to no one in particular, “we’ve arrived!” Male supporters weren’t left behind, however; one man held another’s shoulder affectionately as they listened to Booker talk of his father and the importance of love in politics.

It’s hard to blame Booker supporters for buying into an ideology that sounds so nice, no matter what the real-life results of Booker’s tenure as mayor actually look like. Cory Booker markets in a very discrete and instantly gratifying optimism. It's quite pleasant, actually, to hear him go on about love. Love, whatever that means in politics, is a popular topic with Cory Booker. It's a popular topic among his believers as well. It makes them feel good; it boosts their endorphins. It's got what they crave; it's got electrolytes.

And it would have easily catapulted Booker into presidential contender status if he wasn't marketing it in a nation so weary of the chaos of two Obama administrations.

It is true that Booker, as an executive, brings leadership experience to the office that President Obama never had, record as mayor aside. For one, Obama never had to contend with madcap former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, who has made it a personal mission to slime Booker’s name (even in endorsements!) in between his stints in prison. However, Obama also never had to contend with two-term President Barack Obama casting a long shadow over his own personal charisma and oratory skills. Senator Obama didn't have a robust online conservative media challenging his every step the way Booker does today. And he certainly had more support from independents than Booker's deeply blue crowd could show. Americans have already seen this brand of politics that shirks away from speaking directly of problems, opting instead of a laundry list of reasons why things will be okay. Even Democrats fight buyer's remorse on the matter every day. 

But Democrats will fall for the same brand of politician because they are so desperate to hear good news—any good news—even if it isn’t quite based in reality. Therein lies the heart of the difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives want to be told the worst of it and be incorporated in solving the community’s problems. They want no embellishments and prefer a healthy sense of panic when things go wrong to drive them. Lonegan delivered heartily on that, but he never tried to reach across the aisle with reassuring words. Booker never quite brushed the subject of how perilous the future can look for the nation but did try to reach across the aisle in his speech last night by emphasizing "self-reliance" and "work ethic"—the idea that only we can solve this problem, but no word on exactly how. 

The hows to solving national problems are scary. They are big and warrant sacrifices, spending cuts, political compromise. Booker knew better than to give his crowd too much of that. This was a crowd of liberals that wanted to be comforted, not put to work. They wanted to be told everything will be fine if we just love each other enough. And, luckily for them last night, few people in American politics can comfort an ailing crowd better than Cory Booker; it’s a shame for him that most of them live in the White House.


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