Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is running for president, hoping, as he said in his announcement video last week, to “channel our common pain back into our common purpose.”
The former Newark mayor announced his campaign Friday morning, doing away with the pesky business of exploratory committees and “testing the waters” to plunge right into the fray. He spent his first day on a breakneck sprint, doing three radio interviews — all with hosts of color — before going on The View.
“The critical thing for me… is this idea in America that the lines that divide us are stronger than the ties that bind us. I do not believe that,” Booker said during an appearance on Joe Madison’s radio show that morning. “The coalition that we need to build in this country, where we’ve got to begin to see each other with a far more courageous empathy, to understand that we have one destiny in America, that we’ve got to put a sense of indivisible back into this one nation under God.”
For those less familiar with the New Jersey senator, a quick primer: Yes, he always talks like this.
Booker writes poems on Instagram. He responds to his haters on Twitter by vowing to do “better & better in leading with love” and encouraging them to do the same. He gets spotted at the movies with Rosario Dawson.
Thanks 4 your candid feedback. May we both, in our passion for our politics, do better & better in leading with love https://t.co/fhnAslNLKH
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) February 17, 2016
This is who Booker is, and this is the kind of campaign Booker is going to run.
But underneath all that, there is politics. And for Booker, his campaign also begins with an attempt to re-write history.
“I wrote the bill with [Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT)] about being able to import prescription drugs safely from other countries,” Booker told Madison during his interview Friday. “Other nations penalize pharmaceutical companies if they try to raise prices above what they are in other countries. We can say the same thing in America. If you’re going to charge someone in England or Canada, and you drive up those costs here in America, trying to profiteer off of our citizens, then there will be a penalty for that.”
True enough. But what Booker omits is the fact that in the weeks before joining with Casey and Sanders to write that legislation, he joined with Republicans to kill a measure that aimed to do the very same thing.
In January 2017, Sanders introduced a largely symbolic pharmaceutical importation bill in the Senate. The measure would not have actually legalized importation, but its supporters hoped it would serve as proof there was enough support to do exactly that. Booker was joined by 12 other Senate Democrats in voting against the measure, but the New Jersey senator took the most stick for his vote because he had long been considered a likely presidential contender who’d consistently pitched himself as a progressive force of nature.
“This is classic Booker — stand out front on feel-good social issues, regardless of his past positions, and align with big money everywhere else,” Paste Magazine wrote. The Huffington Post put it simply, running a story with the headline, “Cory Booker And A Bunch Of Democrats Prove Trump Right On Big Pharma,” noting that the baker’s dozen of Democrats “did the industry’s bidding” by voting down the measure.
Moreover, no Senate Democrat had stronger ties to Big Pharma than Booker. In 2014, Booker raked in $328,000 in campaign boodle from the “pharmaceutical and health products” industry. (Notably, many pharmaceutical companies have made their homes in Booker’s own state.) The reason Booker voted against the bill, he said in a statement, was because he didn’t believe it was up to safety standards.
“I support the importation of prescription drugs as a key part of a strategy to help control the skyrocketing cost of medications. Any plan to allow the importation of prescription medications should also include consumer protections that ensure foreign drugs meet American safety standards,” the statement he shared with Jezebel said. “I opposed an amendment put forward last night that didn’t meet this test. The rising cost of medications is a life-and-death issue for millions of Americans, which is why I also voted for amendments last night that bring drug prices down and protect Medicare’s prescription drug benefit.”
But the explanation doesn’t hold water. For starters, the bill was, as previously mentioned, largely a symbolic measure, intended to demonstrate that such policies were strongly supported by lawmakers with clout. But more to the point, Americans had long been illegally importing less expensive drugs from Canada, all without sparking a public health crisis. In fact, many drugs sold in Canada are made in the exact same place as drugs sold in the United States.
Or, as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), a supporter of the measure, once put it, “Show me the dead Canadians. Where are the dead Canadians?”
Just one month later, Booker was on board, writing a bill with Sanders and Casey that would allow for foreign drug implementation. His team wanted reporters to know that they weren’t caving to criticism and that, now that he was able to insert “safety measures,” Booker was on board.
A few months later, he put a “pause” on fundraising from pharmaceutical companies.
“It arouses so much criticism and [we] just stopped taking it,” Booker told NPR in June. In a statement following the interview, Booker’s spokesman Jeff Giertz said the donations “became a distraction from his efforts to bring down prescription drug costs” and that they would not resume.
This, too, is who Booker is. Looking back over his mayoral tenure in 2014, The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Booker is a splendid retailer of his narrative, but after a while there is a Barnum & Bailey quality to it… He talks, tweets and travels relentlessly. But what’s left behind is troubling.”
Booker, of course, is hardly the only 2020 contender with a complicated past. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), one of Booker’s closest friends in the Senate, will surely have to address her past support for building a wall on the southern border, her not-too-distant A rating from the NRA, and her work representing big tobacco.
Contending with the past is hardly a new dilemma for those contending for the presidency. In truth, it’s one important way candidates can demonstrate wisdom, and show their quality. The question for Booker is how, exactly, to go about discussing the past. And trying to get by on radical love and empathy almost surely won’t be enough.