Cory Booker gets his way

It looks like he just bullied an old man into retirement -- but it didn't have to be this messy

Topics: Opening Shot, Cory Booker, Frank Lautenberg, 2014,

Cory Booker has gotten his way, but there was never much doubt he would. The Newark mayor and national political celebrity made it known two months ago that he wanted Frank Lautenberg’s Senate seat in 2014, and on Thursday the 89-year-old solon said publicly that he won’t seek a sixth term next year.

And that should clear the way for Booker. Sure, there’ll be a few other New Jersey Democrats who test the waters in the days and weeks ahead, but the smart money says that they – like Lautenberg – will eventually swallow their pride and step out of Booker’s way. And if they don’t, he’ll be heavily favored to beat them in the primary. Republicans will come up with a candidate too, but the Garden State GOP’s bench is thin and the state hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate since (the very liberal) Clifford Case in 1972. Booker, with his broad popularity and limitless treasury, figures to be a reliable caretaker of that Democratic winning streak.

But while New Jersey’s ’14 Senate race now feels like it will be a coronation for Booker, one that will mark his official transformation from municipal leader to D.C. player, the way he handled the past two months does raise questions about how he’ll hold up under the national spotlight.

Basically, he took what could and should have been a relatively smooth transition and made a very public mess of it. If you asked those who know Lautenberg, it was clear for some time that he wasn’t going to seek another term in ’14. He’d be 90 years old, he’d faced cancer in 2010 and a stubborn illness in recent months, and he’d essentially shut down his fundraising operation. He also knew that Booker was looking to move up, was not going to run for governor against Chris Christie in 2013, and would be well-positioned to beat (and humiliate) him in a ’14 primary if it ever came to it; Lautenberg knew all of this without Booker ever opening his mouth and saying one word about 2014.

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In other words, Booker could have carried on for the last few months as if ’14 wasn’t on his mind, making his usual national TV appearances, proclaiming his dedication to his day job in Newark, and saying nice things about his state’s senior senator. Then, when Lautenberg made his inevitable retirement announcement, Booker would have been able to jump in the race, salute the incumbent, and probably even win the old man’s blessing. It would have been smooth, orderly, uneventful – a neatly choreographed passing of the baton.

Instead, Booker jumped the gun, infuriated Lautenberg, and created something of a media spectacle, producing some of the most critical and cynical press coverage he’s received in his 14-year political career.

The drama kicked off in mid-December, when Booker announced that he wouldn’t run for governor and would instead explore the ’14 Senate race. He said he would be “consulting” with Lautenberg, but it was a transparently aggressive move, one that blew up Lautenberg’s timeline and ensured that whenever he did announce his retirement it would look like he was intimidated out of the race. Booker loyalists insist he had no choice – that in backing out of the governor’s race he was disappointing Democrats and needed to provide as clear a rationale as possible. They also claim that the high cost of a statewide race in New Jersey made it imperative for Booker to get an early start on fundraising. 

These justifications aren’t very compelling. For one thing, Booker’s flirtation with running for governor against Christie amounted to a publicity grab; so to the extent it left him feeling like he had to declare his intention to run for some other office, he has only himself to blame. Not that he really was under any pressure to announce a statewide campaign, mind you. When he backed down from challenging Christie, Booker could simply have cited his mayoral duties, then waited for Lautenberg to stand down. The ’13 gubernatorial election will be held before the end of his mayoral term, but the ’14 Senate election won’t be held until after he’s out of office. As for money – well, if there’s one aspiring senator in America who would have no problem raising big bucks on short notice, it’s Cory Booker. The notion that he needed a two-year head start to be competitive for a Senate race is laughable.

The good news for Booker is that just about everyone in the political world will soon forget all of this. And even though it looks like he just bullied an aging man into retirement, few if any rank-and-file voters are paying attention or care. Booker was by far the most popular Democratic politician in New Jersey when he announced his ’14 intentions two months ago, and he still is today. This is his race to lose.

The question, though, is what the last two months say about his preparation for the national stage. For more than a decade, Booker has excelled at attracting fawning, uncritical press coverage, but as a senator with higher ambitions, he’ll face a level of scrutiny he’s unaccustomed to. In his public pursuit of Lautenberg’s seat, Booker has made a series of baffling and self-damaging decisions and, as Maggie Haberman put it, shown “the unmistakable signs of glass jaw syndrome.” Faced with tough media coverage, he’s reacted very defensively, and there’s been some upheaval within his political organization too.

Again, Cory Booker is very likely to be New Jersey’s next senator. But to those who are watching closely, his debut as a candidate has been an unimpressive one – a needlessly unimpressive one.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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