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It’s been about eight weeks since Cory Booker stood outside his house on a freezing day and said he was running for president.
A charismatic sort, Booker does have national recognition.
Nonetheless, his campaign so far has gotten little traction. Two polls this week asking Democratic voters about their presidential preference put Booker near the bottom. He’s at 4 percent in one poll and 2 percent in the other, far behind the top two – Joe Biden, who is not yet officially running, and Bernie Sanders. He also is behind the likes of California senator Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
With this backdrop, Booker appeared Wednesday night on a CNN Town Hall in South Carolina. This is an early primary state and also one where African-Americans make up a sizable part of the Democratic electorate, which theoretically could benefit Booker.
The senator, who is prone to sounding at times like a preacher, did so right off the mark, proclaiming that, “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people.” Quickly moving back to more traditional political ground, the senator insisted he was not talking about “Kumbaya” moments, but of “social justice.” That was good to hear.
After all, no matter how positive you try to be, a presidential campaign can’t be likened to sitting around a campfire singing songs.
This was a Democratic audience – and probably a left-leaning one.
However, Booker avoided veering too far from the middle lane.
Talking about health care, he did not advocate doing away with private insurance as part of a “Medicare for all” policy as some in the party have done. But he did sensibly suggest lowering the eligibility age for Medicare to 55 and allowing more people, and even businesses, to provide coverage for themselves and their employees by buying into the program.
An audience member asked about charter schools. Some on the left suspiciously view charter schools as a scheme to draw money from the traditional public school system. This could have been a troubling question for Booker, who supported charter schools as mayor of Newark.
His kind of roundabout answer was that he backs all forms of public education. He could have mentioned that the Newark school system at one time was so deficient, it was taken over by the state. But speaking to a group of South Carolina folks, he probably thought they wouldn’t care about that.
Another question emerging from the party’s left wing was about reparations for African-Americans because of slavery. The senator didn’t answer “yes,” or “no.” Still, his reply was a good one.
Booker said the real challenge is “closing racial gaps,” which he said stem from not only slavery, but the Jim Crow laws that followed. He used his own family history to demonstrate the problem. Repeating a story well known to New Jersey politicos, Booker talked about how decades ago a representative of a fair housing group helped his family move into suburban – and very white – Bergen County. That was needed, because the racism of the time kept blacks out of many upscale communities.
When the subject of impeachment came up, Booker’s answer drew applause. Rather than impeachment, the senator said he wants to send Donald Trump packing “through the electoral process.”
He also delighted the crowd by vowing to take on the NRA. Mentioning another familiar story to New Jerseyans – a fatal shooting on his block in Newark – Booker pledged to give the NRA a fight it “has never seen” before.
Speaking once again of spiritualism, Booker talked about another of his themes – the human togetherness of all Americans.
Demonstrating his commitment to that ideal, the senator near the end of the show said that a person’s “faith” is best demonstrated by how they treat others. Then again, faith itself is not what’s important.
He explained that comment by saying, he’d “rather hang out with a nice atheist than a mean Christian.”