The rise and (likely) fall of Cory Booker

While I have occasionally critiqued specific people and policies connected to a political party or wing of the political spectrum, I’ve made it a point to try to illuminate what’s behind the Left-Right divide on Israel, rather than contribute to it. 

With that as backdrop, the following critique of someone running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States should not be seen as an endorsement of anyone else in that race, nor support (or condemnation) of those who don’t have a (D) after their name.

But the rise and (likely) fall of US Senator Cory Booker should be a cautionary tale for those who think they can betray their principles, then “pivot” back to integrity after the damage has been done.

Booker has been on my radar ever since I attended my first AIPAC event where the young and rising political star gave what was possibly the most powerful and inspiring speech on Israel I ever heard. His talk drew from his experience interacting with the Chabad community while he was a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, notably how his relationship with their Rabbi, Shmuley Boteach, helped him appreciate both Judaism and the centrality of Israeli to Jewish life.

Since then I’ve kept track of Booker’s rise of the cursus honorum, hoping for the opportunity to vote for the man I saw all those years ago for President.  Unfortunately, now that the chance to do so has arrived, the person I was so impressed with is no longer there.

I suspect that the turning point for Booker came when he had the opportunity to vote against President Obama’s Iran deal, a vote that might have eventually earned him a Profiles in Courage award, but which would have cost him support of a popular president and the enmity of the most powerful people in his party at a time when a presidential run was clearly in his future.  Sadly, Booker took the expedient route and voted for something he probably knew was not right.  Even more sadly, in justifying that vote, had had to justify moving away from all he said – and I suspect believed – as a younger, wiser man.

Given the dynamics of the current presidential race, where dozens of candidates have to go to extreme measures to stand out from the crowd, Booker seems to be playing the game of saying the right things to the Jewish community, while acting against Israel’s interests (by, among other things, voting against federal anti-BDS legislation) and justifying those choices with stale talking points I can’t believe he really buys. 

Booker’s path has cost him the support (although not the friendship) of his old friend Boteach, and wavering over whether he should or should not have met with Louis Farrakhan simply illustrated more of the same triangulation calculated to signal to Left wing primary votes that he is one of them, while trying not to alienate the Jewish community so much that he loses their long-term support.

Unfortunately for him, all of this calculated pandering does not seem to have budged him in the polls. Part of this is the sheer difficulty breaking through all of the noise, especially with the most aggressive members of the Democratic pack out-Lefting him at every turn.  But I also suspect that primary voters with little involvement or even interest in Jewish or Middle East issues recognize inauthenticity when they see it.

The sad thing is that even Booker’s switch to a “balanced” position between Israel and her would-be destroyers has not earned him substantial or lasting support from Israel haters who are only too ready to not just abandon but punish anyone who deviates even an angstrom from their ever-changing list of demands. 

Demands for fealty by the BDS crowd stands in sharp contrast to large swaths of the Jewish community not ready to abandon Booker even when he acts against their interests.  Perhaps this longing for friendship (especially by a rising African American political star) represents weakness on our part, although it could also represent hope that the man who spoke so eloquently at AIPAC way back then is the real Cory Booker, who is just playing the cards he’s been dealt in a strange political era.

Maybe they are right and in four-and-a-half years we’ll be watching Cory Booker accept the nomination of his party for a second term in office.  But I suspect that what we are really watching is a man sacrificing both his soul and his dreams by walking away from what he believes in order to achieve what he wants.  

If Cory ends up an also-ran, with nothing to show for all he’s sacrificed, that should serve as a lesson not for just him, but all of us.  In ways large and small, we are asked to (and often make) compromises to get through life, but our integrity – that which makes us truly us – is something that must never be put up for auction.  Living an inauthentic life has a high cost, which Booker is currently paying.  But his sacrifice might have value if it teaches the rest of us not to make the same mistake.

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