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The Non-Event of the Month

Last week on NBC’s Meet the Press, Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, was asked to give his opinion about an advertisement the Obama campaign has been running. The ad is called “Steel,” and it shows a group of former steelworkers describing what happened to their company after Bain Capital bought it up. “They made as much money off it as they could, and they closed it down. They filed for bankruptcy without any concern for the families or the communities,” says one. Another, using the kind of words mainstream candidates wish they could get away with, said “It was like a vampire. It came in a sucked the life out of us.” Of course, the CEO of Bain at the time was the current Republican nominee for President, Mitt Romney.

Cory’s response created one of those “firestorms” (in Britain they’re called “rows,” pronounced like “wow”) that keep the lights on at horse-race tabloids like Politico:

As far as that stuff, 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 this — 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, it ain’t — they’ve done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses, And this, to me, I’m very uncomfortable with….

But the last point I’ll make is this kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides. It’s nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity, stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. This stuff has got to stop because what it does is it undermines, to me, what this country should be focused on. It’s a distraction from the real issues. It’s either going to be a small campaign about this crap or it’s going to be a big campaign, in my opinion, about the issues that the American public cares about.

Booker, a Democrat, is also a self-described “surrogate” for the Obama campaign, which made the ensuing quote-a-thon even harder for anyone to resist. Republican’s lunged immediately. Not long after Booker’s “gaffe” – which is usually Washington-speak for saying what you believe – the GOP homepage had a screen-grab from Meet the Press, with the lines

I Stand With Cory Cory Booker
SUPPORT JOB CREATION

SIGN THE PETITION

sandwiching Booker’s picture. The Republican motivation for using this is obvious – one guy dinging another member of his team – if hypocritical. Endorsements for Romney from other GOP big-shots, for example, have often been less than enthusiastic.

The media picks up on stuff like this for similar reasons. One is just because Republican’s are making a big deal out of it, so write an introduction, quote-rebuttal-quote, and you have yourself an article. Another reason is that compared to your average political stuff, it’s easy to make this particular “firestorm” dramatic, not only because Obama and Booker are both Democrats, but because they’re both relatively young, black, charismatic and popular. On television, it’s not just “Cory Booker said this” but “Cory Booker, the African-American mayor of Newark, who also ran into a burning house to save a woman recently…”

Booker’s “gaffe” here was doing a bad job of being a surrogate. (His actual mistake, equating Bain and Reverend Wright, is another story, but to journalist-transcribers that’s irrelevant.) No doubt his people or Obama’s let him know, because three hours after his appearance on TV he posted a web video, awkwardly “backtracking” – that’s Washington shorthand for pretending you didn’t mean what you said – away from his hours-old comments, claiming that Mitt Romney’s record in the financial industry is fair game and the Obama campaign was well within its rights to criticize it. That seems like an obvious point, since Romney is running on that record, but as to whether or not Booker believes it – who knows? At the very least, he understands that politically, he has to appear to believe it. Then he went on the Rachel Maddow show to express outrage that the Republicans would use his name and likeness to raise money. Since that’s a textbook campaign tactic, it’s odd that Booker would be so bothered by it.

Fake outrage is one of the most valuable skills in politics, but maybe he was telling the truth. He was obviously telling at least a partial truth when he complained about the Bain ad, but it’s hard to believe any politician can be completely genuine for more than a few sentences. Booker has a reputation for being a “maverick” or a “straight shooter,” a reputation he shares with Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, with whom Booker gets along well. But if you have a brand like that – even if it is partly or mostly genuine – it necessarily becomes something you use because it will give you some (unquantifiable) political advantage. Politics is such a self-conscious process that even the most honest of its mavericks and straight shooters ultimately find themselves acting out the role for which they’ve been typecast. Sometimes the act overtakes the person – see McCain, John – and sometimes it doesn’t. When people talk about looking for honesty and genuineness in politics, what they really mean is they’re looking for the least-fake human they can find (this is why Mitt Romney had so much trouble in the primaries). I’m sure Booker doesn’t like being quoted in Republican advertisements. But again, he understands that politically, he has to get on TV and support Obama and express outrage at the Republicans as often as he can.

Booker has no reason to worry now. He’s paying his penance and he’s still plenty popular. When he runs for office, nobody (save perhaps his Wall Street donors) will remember or care about this. Except maybe some political sites, if they’re short on stories that week. Under the headline “Cory Booker’s brand takes a hit”, two Politico reporters lead with this:

It only took 15 seconds on “Meet the Press” to turn Cory Booker’s gold-plated political brand into an imperiled commodity.

Booker has cemented a reputation as a rising Democratic star with crossover appeal, whose open secret is his desire to become either senator or governor.

But the Newark mayor may have done himself serious damage before he gets the chance to act on his long-held ambitions, thanks to his pointed criticism of the Obama campaign’s assault on Mitt Romney’s private-equity tenure, which he equated with the GOP using the Rev. Jeremiah Wright against Obama. Booker’s words, combined with his painful, videotaped walk-back hours later, may have done the Democrat more harm than good.

Really though, there’s nothing important about this story, not even for the citizens of Newark, who already know how Booker feels about private equity. (Booker has fund-raised widely from the financial sector and he is a known supporter of private-equity-financed education reform.) From the moment Booker uttered those words on Meet the Press, everything was kabuki theater.