Commentary Magazine

Cory Booker Does Not Deserve Praise for “Anguish”

Image by © Mark Reinstein/Corbis.

Jonathan Tobin rightly highlighted Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)’s “folly” with regard to his statement announcing opposition to the Iran deal. Booker has clearly thought about the deal and has provided a deeper analysis of its costs and benefits than many of his Senate colleagues. But, rather than serve as a moral leader within the Democratic caucus, Booker ducked and covered when it mattered: When objective arguments could have deterred narrow partisanship in its embrace of a nuclear deal that does little to achieve its initial aims. Booker might also have stepped up when the White House and its proxies began insinuating that Chuck Schumer was a warmonger or harbored dual loyalties for opposing the Iran deal on its merits. Instead, Booker chose silence until after his vote and voice seemed to matter. Tobin is correct that Booker wants it both ways: He proved the primacy of party loyalty—and his Democratic credentials—for any future White House run, while his statement will serve to immunize from the criticism of his endorsement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if and when it goes bad. In effect, Booker has positioned himself as a John Kerry for a new generation: Instead of being with it before he was against it, he seeks to position himself as with and against it simultaneously.

Jeffrey Goldberg, a journalist who frequently writes about Israel and has, alongside the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, knowingly acted as Obama’s court stenographer on issues relating to the Middle East, praised Booker’s “anguish.” It’s an interesting term that Booker did not use in his statement but about which he often speaks. Consider the following declarations by Booker about his anguish over the past couple years:

  • “When I talk to my grandfather now, I anguish to him that we are a nation that has become so polarized, where people are so quick to identify themselves as Democrat or Republican before they say, first and foremost, that I am an American.” (Stanford University commencement speech, June 17, 2012).
  • “Across party lines Senator Paul and I have found common ground around the urgent need to reform our criminal justice system and address the anguished and expensive reality of mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders in USA,” Statement on taking a ‘Selfie’ with Sen. Rand Paul, July 12, 2014
  • “I rise today filled with anguish and heartbreak that is shared by so many Americans who are watching over the past weeks as countless innocent children, and innocent civilians have been killed and live in states of great fear….” (Speaking on the Senate floor to condemn Hamas and its attacks on Israel, July 29, 2014).
  • “I’ve grown much in 22 years and have had some wise, extraordinary teachers and friends from all different backgrounds who have emboldened my hope and love and belief in what is possible — despite setbacks, mistakes, my own failings and other points of anguish and frustration” in “Cory Booker responds to Ferguson decision by sharing Rodney King column he wrote in 1992” (November 26, 2014)
  • “‘A deeper anguish, an unfinished American business,’ Booker says of [Ferguson] protests” (December 10, 2014)
  • “For the sake of our nation’s security and the untold anguish of accidents, this provision should be taken out of the bill.” (Booker, tweeting about truck accidents, December 11, 2014).
  • “Booker: ‘anguished’ by Baltimore, incidents show ‘urgency’ for justice reform” (April 29, 2015)

Let me submit that politicians who speak so often of their anguish, yet do not dedicate themselves to the cause about which they are supposed anguished are cheapening the word. Politicians—especially those who aspire to be president—are adept at feigning ‘anguish’ and sympathy in order to pander to one constituency or another. Who can forget how Dennis Ross, a Middle East peace process aide to several administration while a member of Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign staff assured the Jewish community about Obama’s deep commitment to Israel and his understanding of the need to pressure Iran? (Well, Haaretz has put that interview down the memory hole). Words came easy to Obama. Sincerity did not.

Booker has been a master at posturing. He has often described his affinity for Israel and taken, at least rhetorically, a hard line against terrorism. His vote on the Iran deal, however, was perhaps the first time he has had to lay out his hand openly and definitively rather than simply posture. How anguishing it is, then, that he has abandoned moral clarity and helped enable a deal that pumps money into the coffers of the terrorist groups he has previously condemned. And how anguishing it is that as his party has shifted further to the left on foreign policy than any previous administration, Booker has chosen not to hold firm and put brakes on its descent.

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