His Wall Street ties will hurt him in a Democratic primary. And is America hasn't picked a bachelor in more than a century.
Sen. Cory Booker is running for president, even if it’s not official yet. The visits to Iowa and New Hampshire are a dead giveaway.
And why not? He’s a rare talent, the field is wide open, and if a guy like Donald Trump can do the job, then Booker can do it with one hand.
But he faces two big problems from the start.
One is quirky and personal: He is a bachelor and America hasn’t elected a bachelor since Grover Cleveland won in 1886. So perhaps his New Year’s resolution should be to find a bride. (He’s a vegan, too, but I have no scary stats on that.)
The second is that Booker is among the top recipients of Wall Street money in Congress, and in some years he takes first place.
“That’s going to weigh down on him,” says Julian Zelizer, a political science professor at Princeton. “That’s been his vulnerability from the time he started to be floated as a candidate. He is a Democrat who has not shied away from connections to Wall Street. It’s going to be a problem. Pre-2016 it might been less so, but I think Bernie Sanders showed that this sentiment is strong.”
The irony is that Booker is no friend of Wall Street, when you look at his policies. He opposes the infamous carried-interest provision of the tax code, which allows venture capitalists like Warren Buffett to pay a lower tax rate than his secretary. He supports the Dodd-Franks regulations, which Wall Street hates. And he wants higher taxes on the rich across the board.
His ties to the drug industry are similar. He gets lots of money from the industry, but he does not dance for those dollars. He favors using Medicare to bargain for lower drug prices, a plan that big pharma fights with all its might. And he joined with Sen. Bernie Sanders to sponsor a bill allowing cheaper imports from Canada.
To me, that matters. If Booker were selling his soul for this money, then he should pay a political price. But that’s not what’s happening.
Sadly, all that stuff about policy substance might not matter much. Hillary Clinton took the same tough stances on Wall Street issues, but Sanders was able to convince a good share of primary voters that she was a shill for big money. It didn’t help, of course, that she was politically blind enough to give eight speeches to big banks at $225,000 a clip.
Booker has his own political millstone, an appearance on Meet the Press in 2012 when he defended the venture capital industry with enthusiasm and said that the Obama campaign’s attacks on Mitt Romney over his leadership of Bain Capital left him “nauseated.”
“I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity,” said Booker, then mayor of Newark and a surrogate for the Obama campaign. “To me, we’re getting to a ridiculous point in America. If you look at the totality of Bain’s record, they’ve done a lot to support businesses that grow businesses.”
For a populist candidate like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who became the first Democrat to jump into the race this week, that stuff is gold.
“That will be played in the primary many times over,” Zelizer says. “Many people won’t be able to get over it, regardless of what his record is.”
Booker’s team argues that his high rank as a recipient of money from Wall Street and Big Pharma stems from geography. When an investment banker who lives in Westfield sends him a check, it counts as a donation from Wall Street.
Campaign finance records show that Booker’s Wall Street money comes almost entirely from individuals, not from the political action committees of Wall Street firms. In February, Booker announced that he would take no more money from the PACs at all.
Still, how much can Booker explain in a 30-second TV spot? His Wall Street ranking, and his Meet the Press moment, can fit into that slot easily.
“It’s going to hurt him,” says former Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who was chairman of Bernie Sanders’ campaign in New Jersey. “It’s a legitimate concern for voters. And on the left side of the party, several people are now trying to outdo each other as to who has the greater purity on money issues.”
Zelizer argues that voters have good reason to worry about the donations from Wall Street and Big Pharma, even though Booker has taken positions that are hostile to those industries.
“It’s a trust issue,” he says. “If Democrats continue to rely on these relationships, ultimately many of their policy promises will never come true. There is a reality to that.”
So, would a President Booker push hard to increase taxes on venture capitalists? Or would that go onto the list of broken promises?
I’d be surprised if we ever find out. At this stage, it’s a long shot for any single candidate. And while the knock may be unfair, it is a political reality that will hurt.
As for the absent wife, I’m not so sure that will count for much. We just elected a guy who bragged about sexually assaulting women on tape. To embrace a vegan bachelor seems quite tame by comparison.
More: Tom Moran columns
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