Booker pushes unity and optimism as party seethes about Trump

Booker pushes unity and optimism as party seethes about Trump
© Stefani Reynolds

Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerWomen urge tech giants to innovate on office return Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (D-N.J.) is banking on a message of optimism and hope to kick-start his 2020 bid for the White House at a time when many Democrats have their sights set solely on ousting President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE.

It’s a message that has defined much of Booker’s political career, and one his allies argue will help him position himself as a foil to Trump. It has also drawn comparisons by some Democrats to the themes of “hope” and “change” espoused by former President Obama during his successful 2008 campaign.

But it’s unclear whether Booker’s message — he called for a “revival of civic grace” in a recent interview on “CBS This Morning” — will resonate with primary voters, who see Trump as a threat that must be defeated at all costs.

“When you develop a message, you have to fit the mood of the electorate for it to work,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “If you’re running around talking about love and unity while people are hopping mad at the president and the general state of the nation, you’re really out of sync.”

On Friday, Booker, who is running to be the second African-American to occupy the White House, jumped into an already crowded Democratic primary field that is shaping up to be the most diverse in the party’s history.

“In America we have a common pain, but what we’re lacking is a sense of common purpose,” Booker said in an announcement video posted online Friday. “I grew up knowing that the only way we can make change is when people come together.”

Several of Booker’s Democratic opponents have already begun casting themselves as fighters capable of going head-to-head with a president known for playing on political and cultural divisions.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - CDC equates Delta to chickenpox in contagiousness Harris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries Why in the world are White House reporters being told to mask up again? MORE (D-Calif.), for example, delivered a scathing assessment of Trump’s tenure in the White House in a Jan. 27 campaign kickoff rally, in which she cast the 2020 election as an “inflection point in the history of our nation.”

“When we have leaders who bully and attack a free press and undermine our democratic institutions. That’s not our America,” Harris said. “When white supremacists march and murder in Charlottesville, or massacre innocent worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue, that’s not our America.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandTreat broadband as infrastructure and we have a chance to get it right House panel looks to help military sexual assault survivors To make energy green, remove red tape MORE (D-N.Y.) tore into Trump during a recent event in New Hampshire, a crucial early primary state, accusing him of “putting the hate and the division into this country” and ruling out the notion of appointing a bipartisan Cabinet if elected.

A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll underscored the deep dissatisfaction with Trump among Democratic voters.

Only 10 percent of respondents expressed approval of the job the president has done in office, while an overwhelming majority — 88 percent — said they disapprove, according to the poll, which
veyed 737 Democrats from Feb. 1-2.

In another survey released Monday by Monmouth University, a majority of respondents identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents — 56 percent — said they would prefer a presidential nominee who is a strong candidate against Trump to one they agree with on the issues.

To be sure, Booker, a  former mayor of Newark, N.J., has a history of taking on the Trump administration.

Just last year, as a bitter fight unfolded over the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughOn The Money: Biden asks Congress to extend eviction ban with days until expiration | Economic growth rose to 6.5 percent annual rate in second quarter Biden calls on Congress to extend eviction ban with days until expiration An obscure Supreme Court ruling is a cautionary tale of federal power MORE, Booker ordered the release of “committee confidential” emails related to Kavanaugh’s tenure in the George W. Bush White House — an act of “civil disobedience,” as Booker put it.

And even in his 2020 campaign announcement video, Booker took a series of barely veiled shots at Trump, whom he didn’t mention by name, harkening back to a time when Americans saw “the faces of our leaders on television and feel pride, not shame.”

Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal political action committee, noted that Booker has hardened his line on Trump in recent years, while moving toward more progressive positions on issues related to the pharmaceutical industry and Wall Street.

But recently, Booker has focused less on Trump and more on a vow to promote unity in an increasingly divided political environment.

“He is very consciously positioning his image as being a hero,” Green said. “But in any good story, to have a hero, you need to have villains.”

“It’ll be an interesting needle to thread to both continue calling out Trump, Republicans and corporate interests, while also calling for unity and getting along."

Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Gillibrand, said any successful presidential candidate will have to do more than confront Trump. Both Gillibrand and Harris have sought to inspire optimism in their campaigns, Reinish said, but Booker has “overtly made love and happiness a big part of who he is.”

“The base Democratic voters who are going to send Trump back to Mar-a-Lago are all very eager to fight him,” Reinish said. “But that does not preclude unity; that does not preclude happiness.”

Booker is slated to head to Iowa on Friday, his first trip since he announced his candidacy.

Matt Paul, an Iowa-based Democratic strategist, said Booker’s image as a happy warrior has a precedent of success in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Obama, with his message of hope and change, was received warmly in 2008 and eventually went on to take first place in the caucuses.

“I think that authentic genuine sense and trueness to himself is going to be critically important [for Booker],” Paul said. “I think Democrats are going to look at who can win and who can first inspire the party and then unite the nation. To do that, they need to see a genuine, authentic messenger.”

Jim Demers, a New Hampshire Democratic strategist and informal adviser to Booker, said the senator’s brand of deeply personal politics would also likely give him an early boost in the Granite State.

“I think his style of campaigning is a perfect fit for New Hampshire, because we still require the candidates to personally talk to us face to face,” Demers said. “He thrives on that type of campaigning.”

Demers added that voters were growing wary of Trump’s rhetoric and the flurry of ongoing political disputes in Washington. The real test in 2020, he said, is which candidate can “set a different tone.”

“I made my decision about over a year ago to support him and I told him that at the time,” Demers said. “And part of the reasoning why I support Cory Booker is because I believe his message of unity and not being divisive is exactly where the American people are today.”

--Updated at 7:52 a.m.