This Sunday, Newark Mayor Cory Booker went on NBC's Meet the Press, home of David Gregory's meatball pitch to right-handed batters, and called Barack Obama's attacks on Mitt Romney's Bain Capital record "nauseating."
Here was Junior Varsity Obama, an ostensible progressive, calling out the man with whom he'd become profitably identified, undercutting the president's campaign topic and handing the GOP a ready-made attack ad and talking point. If you're wondering, "How could a Democrat do this?" you might as well also wonder how they can fog a mirror if they're still breathing.
Being on cozy terms with Wall Street types has been the story of the Democratic party for the last 20 years, based on the theory that those same Wall Street types are more likely to donate and campaign for Democrats the more indistinguishable they become from Republicans. It's the New Coke theory of politics, and it works just as well as its namesake. "Wait, you mean some people might find what we offer distasteful? Well, fuck our customers, then: if there's one people we can't live without, it's the people who already don't like us." One percent of everybody wins!
Naturally, a guy as savvy as Booker didn't pitch his ideas like that. (In 2002, he called Wall Street donations from Ivy League alumni buddies "love money.") He masked the great upward-sucking sound with a false equivalency whose laziness either insulted the intelligence of the electorate or the proud legacy of hard-working American dishonesty:
I talk to the White House quite often. I'm a surrogate for the Obama campaign. ... But the last point I'll make is this kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides. It's nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity, stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. This stuff has got to stop because what it does is it undermines, to me, what this country should be focused on. It's a distraction from the real issues.
Trying to take Booker's logical building materials and build a bridge to them without intrusions from reality is as doomed as trying to construct one out of sugar cubes in a downpour. You have one man running on his Bain Capital record—indeed, insisting on its proof of his qualification to run for president—one that his opponent is now examining and criticizing in the public sphere, to challenge that record. Meanwhile, that opponent has not once said, "I believe I should be president because I was maybe sitting in a reverend's church when he said 'God damn America,'" despite the fact that he's being linked to that reverend, to the point that one man's sermons are being equated with another man's policy.
Booker is spinning with all the audacity of bullshit if he thinks there's a substantive connection between one candidate choosing to run on and highlight his own business experience and another candidate being judged on the basis of The Spooky Black "Other," one he never made a campaign plank and one he distanced himself from—four years ago. But, hey, in Booker's universe, maybe they're linked. And you know what's just like an Orange Julius? This bottle of Applejack. Let's give each to a bunch of children and watch what happens.
But Booker's not a stupid person. With the possibility of a serious challenger in the Newark mayoral race, his long-term reputation will fare better if he moves upward and away from embarrassing risk. Challenging Frank Lautenberg, the oldest man in the senate, in 2014, is probably a good bet. And big statewide elections need lots of money, especially ones that have to buy ad time in the hugely expensive New York media market. While defending the sorts of rich guys who flipped Newark (and its tax base) the bird and took the white flight to the suburbs over 40 years ago might seem weird as its mayor, it makes perfect sense when you might need an equity manager to cut a $2 million check for a last-second ad buy in a statewide race.
Meanwhile, Booker's surely been paying attention and realizes that the negative consequences for going on Meet the Press to make rich guys feel okay about his future candidacy or about being rich in general are pretty low. (Just look at host David Gregory.) Obama's "Car Czar," Steve Rattner, was a private equity mogul himself, so there's plenty of room in the discourse for a nice word here or there. Rattner offered one himself, he's been allowed to walk back after conveniently letting a generic pro-equity message echo on TV and in the blogosphere, coming out of a Democratic representative's mouth.
And Booker, like the rest of the Democratic party, knows that he has a captive audience. The Republicans arguably have to do more work to get elected: in order to silence any concerns you might have about the social safety net or real economic populism, they have to make you afraid of Arabs, blacks, Mexicans, gays, atheists and Europe. The Democratic party just has to make you afraid of Republicans. That affords them an awful leeway when it comes to saying, "These rich guys whose economic interests are diametrically opposed to yours—these are the good ones." It's not like you have a choice in the matter anyway.
Besides, on an emotional or even aspirational level, you may already have chosen. On top of the nationwide buy-in to investing from home, where everyone can purchase the illusion of becoming a fatcat and finally owning Marvin Gardens, viewers actually find an animated baby shit-talking about investment strategy entertaining. One of NBC's most successful shows for the last half decade has featured a meringue-domed birther product of nepotism firing people in some race to see which human being can rot faster.
And of course last week social media slowed to a crawl as (incredibly!) Americans rooted for a billionaire privacy-invading dickhead who was the villain of his own biopic to become an even bigger billionaire—as if, somehow, the number meant something to all of us. And maybe it does; maybe there's no downside. Maybe we're all as invested in believing in the essential worthiness of rich guys as they are. Cory Booker didn't have a lot to lose by going on TV and cheering for them—certainly not an election.
"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo?
Image by Jim Cooke.