Cory Booker’s campaign of love and unity has him sitting at 2 percent in the polls. So now he’s giving tough love a try.
The New Jersey Democrat entered the presidential race promising to bridge the country’s divides and elevate its political discourse after two years of Donald Trump. But after polling in the low-single digits for months, stuck in a crowded second tier of Democratic hopefuls, Booker is starting to change his M.O.
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On Monday night, he told comedian Seth Meyers he sometimes feels “like punching” the president. The senator is also going after Democratic front-runner Joe Biden more aggressively than he ever has, calling the former VP the “failed architect” of a broken criminal justice system.
He followed up Tuesday morning with a dig at Biden after he released his criminal justice plan, which notably reversed his past support for the death penalty. “It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years,” Booker wrote on Twitter. “You created this system. We’ll dismantle it.”
Within a few hours, the campaign erased any doubt about the intended target. “Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right,” Booker said in a statement. “The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”
The newfound pugilism is a striking departure for Booker, the charismatic onetime star mayor of Newark who’s embraced “radical love” as a political philosophy, and it offers a possible preview of next week’s Democratic debate. Kamala Harris’ surprise attack on Biden in the first debate paid off handsomely for her, and Booker desperately needs a momentum-seizing moment.
Booker’s shift also may reflect that a high-minded, above-the-fray approach simply won’t cut it in an election like this.
“I think Cory is responding to the environment. This is a tough environment,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “And so I think the question for voters to this point is, ‘Are you tough enough?’ And not just tough enough to take on Trump but are you tough enough to survive a fight with the Republicans? I think this is his way of responding.”
Booker tied Biden to the 1990s crime bill, which he said “accelerated mass incarceration and inflicted immeasurable harm on Black, Brown, and low-income communities.” He called it “encouraging” to see Biden “finally come around to supporting many of the ideas I and others have proposed” but argued that his proposal “falls short of the transformative change our broken criminal justice system needs.”
“Our next president must both heal our country from decades of racist and unjust policy, and put forward a sweeping vision for how we can rise together,” Booker added. “Any comprehensive plan simply must include the legalization of marijuana, an overhaul of policing practices, ambitious use of presidential clemency power to right past wrongs, and reinvestment in the communities that have borne the costs of mass incarceration. Joe Biden’s plan doesn’t do that.”
Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Biden campaign co-chair, told CNN on Tuesday that Biden “is gonna increasingly get shots taken at him” because he’s the front-runner.
“It’s just interesting to me how candidates want to focus on the Clinton crime bill, but they don’t wanna talk about the Obama years,” Richmond said, alluding to Biden’s service in the White House. “It’s very clear that the two candidates are gonna target this.”
Booker dropped his gloves on Sunday, when he told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Trump “is worse than a racist.” Booker notably declined to say whether he thought Trump was a racist when he launched his campaign in February, telling reporters in Newark, N.J., at the time that he would “leave that to the Lord.”
He also told Tapper that he was proud to be “one of the leaders of the only major bipartisan bill that passed through the Senate to reverse the things that were caused by the 1994 crime bill,” a clear contrast with Biden.
On Monday night, Booker shared an anecdote of the time an Iowa voter said he wanted Booker to punch Trump in the face.
“Donald Trump is a guy who you understand he hurts you, and my testosterone sometimes makes me wanna feel like punching him, which would be bad for this elderly, out-of-shape man that he is, if I did that,” Booker, a former Division I college football player, explained to Meyers. “This physically weak specimen.”
“That’s his tactics. And you don’t beat a bully like him fighting him on his tactics, on his terms, using his turf,” he added. “He’s the body shamer. He’s the guy that tries to drag people in the gutter.”
Booker’s tone hasn’t been this aggressive since he scolded Biden last month, when the ex-senator reminisced about working with segregationist colleagues in the upper chamber. Asked about the shift, a campaign aide said Booker is speaking his mind on issues he’s passionate about.
But it was Harris who benefited politically from Biden’s blunder. Random selection put Harris, not Booker, on stage with Biden, and she confronted him over his opposition to federally mandated busing to integrate schools.
Seawright said he cautions candidates from getting too aggressive, noting that the ultimate goal is to unite the party and beat Trump at the ballot box next November.
“Some people have seen it has worked well for other candidates to be tough and to take a swipe. The problem with that is not all swipes are a good swipe, and not all swings connect,” he said. “Sometimes it backfires and the swing ends up hitting them.”
Booker, Biden and Harris will share the stage in Detroit next Wednesday.
“Mark the date: July 31, 2019,” Michael Tyler, Booker’s deputy communications director, tweeted last week after CNN announced the debate lineups. “@JoeBiden finally gets his own Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing.”