Wearing a tie the bright blue of Crest toothpaste, his bald head gleaming under the stage lights, Senator Cory Booker spent Wednesday night’s CNN town hall presenting himself to a crowd of Democrats and Independents as an uber-positive anti-Trump.
Booker was introduced by moderator Don Lemon as someone who is “pitching optimism as the best way to defeat President Donald Trump.” Throughout the evening, the New Jersey senator appeared to be banking on the hope that what Americans detest most about Trump is not his incompetence, ignorance, or inability to devote as much time to actually presiding as he does to watching Fox & Friends, but his uncontested status as the nation’s bully-in-chief. If Trump is hate incarnate, Booker’s theory goes, an election against him can, and must, only be won with love.
“The only way to beat hate is not bringing more hate,” he said. “It’s by bringing love and hope and uniting people to solve the persistent injustices in our country. I’m going to do that, and that’s actually how we are going to win.”
Booker knows that some people question the decision to campaign on “love and unity.” He assured the audience that he gets that a lot, even from some of his friends. But how can he do otherwise? He has love for everyone! He loves this country. He loves your enthusiasm. Et cetera.
He also loves fellow presidential hopeful — so, in this context, his opponent — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, “one of my best friends in the Senate.” She makes some of the best vegan food he’s ever had! Did you know Cory Booker was a vegan? If you didn’t before, you would by the end of this town hall, which started with a real incisive question from Lemon about Booker’s diet (“You’re a vegan. What’s that like?”) and managed to squeeze in two additional vegan jokes in just over an hour.
But as the first audience member asked, isn’t the most important thing here to pick someone — like, anyone — who can beat Trump? And perhaps this might call for something with a little more teeth, and a little less cuddly, than the motto Booker espouses? To this, Booker replies that he, too, feels “the urgency of this moment.” But he stands by his strategy. “To be strong, you don’t need to be cruel. To be tough, you don’t need to be mean.”
Booker evaded a question on Jussie Smollett, the actor who claimed to be the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime. When the news first broke, the senator tweeted that the attack on Smollett was “an attempted modern-day lynching.” Smollett was later charged with staging and sponsoring the assault himself, allegedly because he was dissatisfied with his Empire pay.
The day of the town hall, all the charges against Smollett were dropped. Asked by Lemon for his reaction, Booker was cautious in his reply: “I don’t know all the details in the prosecutor’s decision. I know that’s going to come out.” But he was quick to suggest that people set aside, for now, the specifics of the increasingly murky Smollett case and acknowledge the irrefutable: hate crimes, and white supremacist violence in particular, are on the rise in the United States.
“If you look at the majority of terrorist attacks since 9/11, the majority have been done by homegrown right wing supremacist groups, and the majority have been white supremacist groups,” he said. “Why aren’t we discussing the rise in anti-Semitic acts, the rise in violence and Islamophobic acts, the rise in racism?”
Booker returned several times to his fury over racial disparities in policing and sentencing, finding ways to connect the issue with both his current address (he’s lived in Newark for more than 20 years) and his academic pedigree (“You don’t see stop and frisks on campuses like Stanford, where I went”). He described ’90s-era legislation on crime and law enforcement as “horrible crime bills.” When Lemon asked directly, “Would you consider mass pardons or commutations for federal marijuana offenses?”, the senator answered “absolutely,” and touted his successful passage of a “comprehensive criminal justice reform bill with other senators on both sides of the aisle.”
Whenever Joe Biden decides it is time to stop fumbling his non-apologies to Anita Hill and tell the country he is, in fact, running for president, this will surely be a theme Booker brings up again: When Biden was a senator, he wrote the 1994 Violence Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. And two of the other men vying for the Democratic nomination — Sen. Bernie Sanders, then a Vermont representative, and Gov. Jay Inslee — voted for that bill.
While Booker duly talked through a battery of other policy positions, nothing he said was particularly surprising or out of step with his fellow would-be nominees. He supports the Green New Deal, is exhausted by politicians’ post-massacre “thoughts and prayers,” and abhors money from pharmaceutical executives and lobbyists, which — although he has taken such donations in the past — he pledged to not accept.
He also vowed to “bring the fight” to the NRA and protect Dreamers, “who are Americans in every way, except for a piece of paper.” He hears your desire to impeach Trump and kindly insists the nation focus that great energy on ousting the sitting president the old-fashioned way: by electing a new one via an electoral college majority.
If it feels like the 2020 election is far away, and/or like we literally just did this, that’s because there are still 474 days until the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Milwaukee and 586 days until the election next November. (For context, this time last election cycle, the current president had just launched his exploratory committee.)
This means Booker and his fellow Democratic hopefuls, of whom there are a near-parodic amount, have a year and change to prove they deserve to be more than just future Trivial Pursuit clues and instead should be enshrined in some more permanent, sacred way, like by having their portrait hanging in all our nation’s airports.
This part of the election cycle is a lot like the the season premiere of The Bachelor, in which hours are devoted to the spectacle of winnowing a pack of 30 evening-gowned and improbably-employed future Instagram influencers down to a more manageable harem. Everyone’s trying to make a strong enough first impression to not get cut, but not such a crazy one as to get cut immediately.
So, what’s Booker’s first impression?
With his girlfriend, Rosario Dawson, it was apparently so underwhelming that “she didn’t give me the time of day,” he told Lemon, after chastising the moderator for his gossipy inquiry. “Is this CNN or TMZ?” Booker said when Lemon giddily asked if America could expect a wedding in his White House.
On stage, Booker is try-hard charming, a substitute teacher who refuses to pop in a VHS and call it a day, a boyfriend meeting the parents for the first time. He likes to make sure he is pronouncing your name correctly. He wants you to know, first of all, that he is so grateful for your question. This ardor is not exactly matched by the audience beyond the auditorium which, based on social media engagement, is not especially high. As the town hall approaches the one-hour mark, #BookerTownHall is not trending on Twitter in Washington, though #Bagelgate is.
By the end of the night, Booker’s hashtag does surpass that of the viral slicing travesty. And Booker has thanked everyone for everything — a veteran for his service, and also that veteran’s family for their service, and so on — and has had somebody hit send on a fundraising email timed to flood his supporters’ inboxes the moment he leaves the stage.