For Cory Booker, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy

Posted Jul 25, 2019

WASHINGTON — For Cory Booker, peace and love has given way to confrontation and criticism.

Booker, trailing in opinion polls and fundraising, has taken aim at former Vice President Joe Biden, the early frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

For almost a month now, he has leveled attacks on Biden that are getting more personal — ignoring the rest of the Democratic field as well as his own campaign mantra of emphasizing a positive vision for America.

In other words, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy.

“There’s a need for Booker to change tactics,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “He’s everybody’s favorite cheerleader but no one sees him as the quarterback.”

Booker has hit front-runner Biden hard. He demanded an apology after Biden praised two segregationist senators. He went after Biden’s criminal justice proposals by calling him “an architect of mass incarceration,” referring to his role in passing the 1994 crime bill blamed for an increase in the prison population, especially among minorities.

He didn’t mention Biden by name on Thursday, but clearly alluded to him in a speech before the National Urban League in Indianapolis.

“Don’t just tell us what you’re gonna do,” Booker said. “Tell us what you’ve already done. Don’t just tell us you’re gonna be a champion for our communities when you become president, if you haven’t been a champion already."

Biden has hit back. He cited the U.S. Justice Department’s probe of Newark’s police department practices after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint during Booker’s time as mayor.

That was during President Barack Obama’s administration, where Biden served as vice president, and the Justice Department and city eventually agreed on naming a federal monitor.

Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, turned up the heat, calling the Newark police department under Booker "a civil rights nightmare.”

Booker’s new-found offense is an effort to jump-start a presidential candidacy that has been lagging in opinion polls and fundraising.

He remains far behind Biden and other candidates, despite his strong performance in the first debate. The Real Clear Politics poll average put Booker in eight place with 1.8 percent, well behind Biden, who led with 28.6 percent.

But in being aggressive, Booker runs the risk of losing the brand that made him a contender in the first place. His new stance isn’t sitting well with some fellow Jersey Democrats.

“If I was asked to give advice, I would say, ‘Cory, I love you. Stay away from doing this,’” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-9th Dist. “'You have enough good qualities. You may get a few more headlines if you do it that way. It’s not worth it. It cheapens your own campaign, period.”

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-12th Dist., said she worried that confrontations between Democrats now will provide ammunition to President Donald Trump later.

“I don’t want them to start getting to tearing one another apart,” she said. “We don’t need to give anybody any fodder to be using against any of our candidates in the end because every one of our candidates is infinitely more qualified, better and more honest than this person we have in office now. I don’t want to give him any kind of an edge."

Not everyone sees it that way. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st Dist., said Booker is doing nothing more than what every candidate does in a competitive election.

“You need to compare yourself to those running against you,” Norcross said. “It’s peace, love and now persuasion. That’s what a primary’s all about. That’s what an election is all about.”

While the New Jersey senator remains stuck in the low single digits in polls, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who like Booker is African-American, saw her fortunes rise after confronting Biden over racial busing when they shared the stage in the first presidential debate last month.

She’s now in fourth place in the Real Clear Politics poll average with 12.2 percent.

“We saw that there was a little sparring match between Harris and Biden,” said Ashley Koning, an assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics and the director of its Center for Public Interest Polling. "Probably, Booker’s campaign said, ‘We’re also passionate about the issue. Let’s do the same.’ Booker had started that dialog before the debate.”

Booker’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Last month, Booker did not share the stage with Biden and Harris as he appeared during the first night of the two-part of debate. He will be able to spar with both of them in next week’s debate.

Biden, meanwhile, told supporters at a fundraiser Wednesday night that he would be “less polite” if attacked during next week’s debate.

Fighting over criminal justice could give Booker an advantage since he has made the issue a centerpiece of his time in Washington, and helped write the new law that provides alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders and has led to the release of more than 3,000 federal prisoners.

It’s an issue near and dear to minority communities, which have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs and other anti-crime laws and whose residents would comprise an important part of any winning coalition for Booker.

But Biden, who served under the first black president, so far holds a commanding lead among African-American voters, making him an even more enticing target for Booker.

Just look at Thursday’s Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, a state crucial to Booker’s presidential hopes.

Among blacks, which comprise more than half the electorate, Biden received 51 percent support. Harris was second with 12 percent and Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders third with 10 percent. Booker was tied for fourth place with 2 percent.

“He needs to find a hook to take out Biden and to show he’s a guy you should feel comfortable with as the No. 1 choice, someone who can take the fight to Donald Trump,” Murray said.

The problem, Murray said, is that "Biden has extremely high credibility in the African- American community. Those attacks are going to fall flat.”

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