BY SAHIL KAPUR BLOOMBERG
WASHINGTON – Cory Booker spent the first five months of his presidential bid dispensing a message of love and unity.
But it hasn’t caught on with a Democratic electorate that is seething with anger toward President Donald Trump and desperate to throw him out of office.
The New Jersey senator long seen as a potential star of Democratic politics is struggling to break out of the second tier of candidates.
Now, he is refining his core pitch, melding his vow to unite all Americans in a “common purpose” of healing the country’s divisions with a validation of the rage of his party’s voters.
“Anger and love are not mutually exclusive. You can still be angry and lead with love,” Booker said in an interview in Charleston, S.C., last weekend.
He pointed to the example of unifying figures such as civil rights activists, who “didn’t let the moral vandalism of others contort them so much as to pull them so low as to hate them. If anything I think it inspired them to bring the strength and the truth and the power of love to bear.”
Lower than expected
These nuances are out of touch with the mood among many Democrats, for whom President Barack Obama’s “hope and change” has given way to an anxious fury about the state of the country.
His high-wire act stands in sharp contrast to the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination, who mostly bluntly eschew his love-thy-enemy theme and vow instead a scorched earth campaign to take down Trump.
Booker’s early underperformance is a surprise for a candidate who was regarded by many Democrats as a top-tier prospect, and who in recent years has been viewed by Republican operatives as a formidable general-election candidate.
Instead, polls show that many Democratic voters are embracing the far-reaching and structural changes pitched by Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Others lean toward the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who they believe is their safest bet to win the White House.
Just 2% in polls
Nationally, Booker places seventh in a field of two dozen with the support of 2% of Democrats, according to an Economist/YouGov survey released last week.
In South Carolina, where a majority of the Democratic electorate is Black, Booker is fifth with 5%, according to a Post and Courier poll released on June 16.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how much Booker, who is African American, has struggled to woo Black voters. Biden is dominating this demographic nationally, with 50% support in the YouGov poll — in second place was Sanders with 10%.
Booker was backed by just 2%, while Sen. Kamala Harris, the other Black candidate in the Democratic race, had 7%.
Booker is positioned at an ideological crossroads between the moderate and left wings of the party. He has signed on to progressive ideas such as single-payer health insurance, but those stances aren’t central to his pitch to voters.
Instead, he emphasizes the need to be an increment list when necessary — and he has also backed more modest health care bills such as a Medicare option.
He has called for repealing the Hyde amendment that prohibits federal programs such as Medicaid from paying for abortions. But when asked if, as president, he’d refuse to sign legislation that maintains the longstanding Hyde restrictions, Booker said he’s “not going to make that blanket comment” but promised to fight to rip out the Hyde amendment.
“I’m a pragmatic progressive, and I learned as mayor that you can’t hold hostage progress by holding out for purity,” Booker said.
His call for assuring a living wage drew heavy applause at a June 15 forum organized by the Black Economic Alliance in Charleston.
He said in the interview that Americans “should be outraged” that millions of children don’t have access to clean water, and angry at Trump for saying he’s open to accepting help from a foreign government to win reelection.
Booker’s brand of politics hasn’t endeared him to segments of the left.
“Martin Luther King said ‘love without power is sentimental and anemic,’ ” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the leftwing group Justice Democrats.
“Of course, we need more love in our country, but we need candidates who aren’t afraid of naming enemies and rejecting Trump’s friends on Wall Street and in the billionaire class who want to divide and conquer the working people of America.
Shahid and other activists became wary of Booker when he said in May 2012 that he was “very uncomfortable” with the Obama campaign’s attacks portraying Republican nominee Mitt Romney as a corporate predator for his work at the private equity firm Bain Capital.
Though Booker later walked back the remark, it remains a signal to some that the New Jersey senator, who had been mayor of the town of Newark just across the Hudson River from Wall Street, is too cozy with the investment industry.
“Booker criticized Obama for being too much of a populist in 2012 by taking on Bain Capital,” said Shahid, whose group is best known for recruiting 29-year-old House star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress. “I think that style of progressive populism is exactly what we need.”
‘A fresh face’
For all that, political prognosticators shouldn’t write off Booker, said Jim Manley, a lobbyist and former spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
“He’s a fresh face, new to Washington, he has a demonstrated ability to work with his Republican colleagues, he’s a strong progressive yet he doesn’t use some of the more divisive rhetoric some of his other colleagues are using,” Manley said.
“Anyone who claims to know how this process is going to play out is fooling themselves,” Manley said, adding that with the first debate next week, all it takes is one viral moment to catch fire.