The Swamps of Jersey

The Impact of Cory Booker

Ultimately, the Bain debate will be a wash; Obama should hit Romney on the future.

What was Cory Booker thinking yesterday? I know this will come as a shocker, but he is a politician after all: He was thinking about himself.

Booker is from New Jersey. He may be running for Senate in 2014, when Frank Lautenberg, who’s close to 90, may retire. New Jersey is home to what is undoubtedly a decent proportion of New York private-equity guys. The “tell,” as they say, was in the precise way Booker phrased his denunciation of the Obama team’s Bain Capital ads: “I have to just say, from a very personal level, I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity.” Those are pretty clearly the words of a man who has or intends to have a beautiful friendship with private equity.

Steve Kornacki sensed the cynical calculation in Salon yesterday: “Booker’s words on ‘Meet the Press’ may have enraged the average Obama supporter, but to the Wall Street class they were probably close to heroic – finally, a big-name Democrat with the cojones to call out Obama on his class warfare!”

How much does this matter? Maybe not much. About 4 percent of America probably knows and can actually place who Cory Booker is. But it’s very useful for Romney and is the kind of comment that can continue to pay dividends. Come the fall debates, Romney will be able to say, “But Mr. President, even Cory Booker says...” What he won’t be able to come out and say, but what conservatives will attempt to convey, is: “Hey, America—Booker is black, so you’d expect him to be the most slavish of Obama cronies, but look, he’s no socialist! He’s an okay one!” That will be helpful to Romney. But there is of course a deeper thing going on here.

The larger question here is the ultimate impact of the Bain debate. It’s my view that the Bain story will end in more or less a wash. I wrote on May 14 that the Bain story “is going to devolve into one of those he said-he said things, and most undecided voters will shrug and assume that the truth is somewhere in the middle.” I still think that. It may be a marginal plus for Obama in Ohio, where the nature of the workforce and the structure of the economy might allow those personal stories to resonate a bit more deeply than in, say, Colorado. And if it helps win Obama Ohio, then it helped win him the election, because there’s virtually no way he loses if he wins Ohio.

But I have wondered, given that I think Bain will end up roughly a wash, if the Obama campaign isn’t overemphasizing it a little. If the Obama campaign is going to talk about the past, the auto bailout is much clearer cut. Joe Biden was balanced gracefully on his skis indeed when he trotted out that point so effectively. Obama saved the auto industry. Romney, whatever silly things he now says, was against it. End of story. You wanna talk about impact in Ohio, that’s it.

But more importantly: Obama has to make an argument about the future. I would guess that somewhere in the big, secret Axelrod playbook on some thumb-drive in Chicago there is a calendar by which they expect to introduce all these topics. But Romney isn’t going to be defeated by Bain or even by the auto bailout. Obama’s going to have to make a strong argument about Romney’s irresponsible economic “plan,” which will cut taxes on people making more than $1 million a year by an average of more than $250,000 (per year!) and will blow the deficit sky high.

And note those two criticisms: The first is about unfairness, the rich getting another handout, an argument that’s good for the base. The second is about the deficit and will work with swing voters. He should certainly make both critiques. Romney would bring back—and indeed intensify—Bush economics. That will work with both groups.

So that’s the full Booker context, in my view. If the Obama campaign does the above effectively, Booker won’t matter much this fall. But if it leans too hard on Bain and doesn’t advance its narrative, then Booker might linger. Bain should be groundwork--the opening chapter of an argument, not the closing chapter. The closing chapter is Bushonomics Redux.