The Trials of Cory Booker

Newark's Democratic mayor comes under attack for telling the truth about Obama’s anti-capitalist reelection campaign.

Poor Cory Booker. The Newark, New Jersey, mayor and rising Democratic Party star has run afoul of the law of gaffes, coined by the journalist Michael Kinsley. The law holds that a gaffe occurs when a politician accidentally tells the truth.

Booker did exactly that during an appearance this Sunday on “Meet the Press” in which he rebuked the Obama campaign for its ongoing efforts to attack Mitt Romney by targeting his experience working at private equity firm Bain Capital. Ads condemning Bain have become the centerpiece of Obama’s campaign, but Booker would have none of it:

“I have to just say, from a very personal level, I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity. To me, it’s just we’re getting to a ridiculous point in America, especially that I know I live in a state where pension funds, unions and other people are investing in companies like Bain Capital. If you look at the totality of Bain Capital’s record, they’ve done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses. And this to me, I’m very uncomfortable with."

Booker went on to add that the attacks on private equity were “nauseating." If that wasn't embarrassing enough for the White House, Booker likened the anti-Bain smear campaign to conservatives' attacks on Obama’s incendiary pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – that is, a diversion that had no place in the presidential race.

For the Obama campaign and its left-wing surrogates, this was too much to stomach. Reprisal came fast and furious. First to lash out against Booker was Obama’s chief political strategist David Axelrod, who scolded that Booker had been “wrong” to make his remarks and added that the attacks on Bain were justified because “there are specific instances here that speak to an economic theory that isn’t the right economic theory for the country.” Axelrod didn’t specify which theory he had in mind, but presumably he was referring to the administration’s strained attempts to cast Romney as a corporate raider who left gutted companies and pink-slipped workers in his wake – even if it means distorting Romney's actual record at Bain, and the whole purpose of private equity investment, to the point of caricature. Obama-friendly media also piled on, with Chris Matthews condemning Booker’s candor as a “an act of sabotage” and a “betrayal of Obama.” So intense was the blowback that MSNBC pundit Joe Scarborough speculated that Booker was now “fighting for his political life.”

While that may have been overstating it, Booker was clearly feeling the heat. After being raked over the coals by the Obama campaign all day Sunday, he released a four-minute video clip at the end of the day expiating for his crime think on Bain. Gone was his earlier rebuke against attacking capitalism and private equity. Now Booker insisted that he had been misunderstood and that, actually, it was “reasonable” for the campaign to target Romney’s business record. All he had meant to say, Booker explained, was that he was against negative campaigning in the presidential race. That explanation made little sense, inasmuch as the attacks on Romney’s record at Bain were part of a negative campaign by Obama, but it signaled that the upstart politician had been brought to heel by the administration.

That is unlikely to be the end of it, however. For one thing, Booker continues to make the administration look bad even as he tries to appease it. For instance, Obama’s press secretary initially denied that the administration had reached out to Booker to urge him to change his message. Supposedly, the mayor had just done an about face of his own volition. That story was never plausible and Booker, in yet another unsanctioned lapse into truth-telling has since confirmed that it was in fact a lie. "I certainly did talk with campaign officials," Booker told Rachel Maddow on Monday night. He went on to stress that the administration didn't force him to change his words, but did allow that after "having good conversations with them" he decided that "you know what, I need to go on and clarify." Never has a coincidence been timelier.

Beyond spotlighting the administration's credibility deficit, Booker has exposed the flaw in Obama reelection strategy. The Obama campaign wants to pretend that the election is not a referendum on the incumbent but rather a choice between two competing economic philosophies – the rapacious capitalism of Romney and Bain contrasted with the gospel of economic "fairness" preached by Obama. The problem with this approach is that Obama has already had a full term to implement his vision, and all he has to show for it is persistently high unemployment and sluggish growth. By dismissing the attacks on Bain and private equity as a diversion from the core issues facing the country, Booker has inadvertently revealed the shallowness of the Obama campaign. With few accomplishments of his own to boast of, all Obama can do is diminish Romney's achievements in the private sector.

The months ahead will reveal the wisdom of this strategy. For now, though, Booker’s off-message moment has revealed that a reelection campaign intended to persuade the country can’t even convince Obama’s fellow Democrats.

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