THE STUMP MAY 21, 2012
In further evidence that this city knows what to do with molehills (suggested Trenton-style motto: “what Washington makes, the world re-tweets”), much has already been said and written about Newark superman (and mayor) Cory Booker’s unhelpful criticism of Team Obama’s attacks on Bain Capital, the private equity firm that made Mitt Romney a quarter-billionaire and taught him “how jobs come and how they go.” For those who missed it, Booker declared on Meet The Press: “I have to just say from a very personal level I’m not about to sit here and indict private equity,” he said. He followed this up by seeming to equate the Obama’s campaign’s Bain attacks with the proposed $10 million attack on Rev. Jeremiah Wright: “This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides.”
The Twitter-happy Booker has since followed this up with more YouTube statements and clarifications than we were getting from Charlie Sheen during last year’s meltdown, Team Obama has pushed back pretty hard at him (“In this particular instance he was just wrong,” said David Axelrod), and the Republicans are predictably delirious. Several of my colleagues have offered good commentary on the substance of Booker’s remarks, but I thought I’d add a word about the context of his riff. Many people who think of Booker only as your typical urban liberal (who, for one thing, endorsed gay marriage long before Obama) may be wondering where his defense of private equity is coming from. Well, where it’s coming from is from one side of the rift that I described in this piece: the split between the Obama administration and the hedge fund and private equity managers who, only a few years ago, felt a special bond with Candidate Obama. Many of the same Wall Street types who saw Obama as a new kind of Democrat, a brilliant superstar floating above the hacks (not unlike themselves, floating above the time-serving i-bankers!) saw the Ivy League-educated, magnetic Booker much the same way, and supported him accordingly—Booker’s campaigns for mayor got huge backing from across the river, as his decidedly hackish opponent Sharpe James liked to point out. Well, three years later, Obama has lost many of these supporters, for the reasons I describe in my piece. But Booker—who does not have to worry himself about things like financial reform and the carried interest loophole—has managed to remain in their good graces. He has not had to seriously confront the inherent contradictions that have defined the Wall Street-Democratic alliance of the Bob Rubin/Chuck Schumer era. That is, until now.
And there’s more to the local context than just Booker’s proximity to Wall Street and past support from it. Who is Booker’s main rival, frenemy, or whatever you want to call it, in New Jersey politics? Governor Chris Christie. Their complicated relationship is such that they can shoot self-deprecating videos together, while knowing that they, and their ginormous ambitions, may one day be facing each other across a ballot. And here’s the thing about Chris Christie: The hedge fund and private equity types love him now more than just about any other elected official. It was Wall Street, in the person of billionaire hedge funder Paul Singer and others, that was goading Christie to run for president. As I described in my piece:
Their idol is Chris Christie, the tough guy across the river. Former [Administration] Official A recently met with a major hedge fund executive who was “waxing poetic” about the New Jersey governor. “It’s the great man theory of history,” the former official says. “They believed Obama was a great man, and—lo and behold—Washington is a complicated place, and they blame it all on him, and now they believe it’s going to be a former prosecutor who’s going to solve all their dreams.”
Booker knows this, and knows that it would be tough to win a face-off against Christie if he doesn’t have at least some of the money guys on his side.
A final thought: It is worth noting that, even before this episode, there were some fellow Democratic elected officials who were skeptical of Bookermania. I was meeting not long ago with another African-American mayor of a good-sized city and when I brought up Booker he cocked an eyebrow, harrumphed, and said, “Have him tweet ya.” A similar sentiment is now probably rife in a certain downtown Chicago office.
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