At the end of January, Cory Booker was emphatic in his defense of the filibuster. “We should not be doing anything to mess” with it, he said.
By springtime, the New Jersey Democrat had softened his stance considerably: “That door is not closed.”
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As some of his 2020 competitors warm to dramatic reforms like eliminating the Senate’s 60-vote threshold and adding justices to the Supreme Court, the White House hopeful from Newark is plainly wrestling with whether to follow suit.
In an interview, Booker laid bare what he is grappling with: He’s been in the minority most of the time he’s been in the Senate and seen the power of the filibuster block the conservative agenda. And he’s worried that if Democrats make changes to the fabric of the Supreme Court, it will be exploited to potentially greater effect by Republicans in the future.
“You have to understand that a lot of these that are talked about: If we do it when we have the control to do it, they can do it again. What we need to find is real solutions that are sustainable regardless of who is president,” Booker said. “We should be careful about the traditions in this country and how we honor them.”
But his institutional loyalties are being tested by an activist base lurching left and a need to break out of the sprawling Democratic field where he registers in the low- to mid-single digits.
His ambivalence toward such explosive changes reflects Booker’s broader positioning in the 2020 race and within the Senate Democratic Caucus. The 49-year-old senator has a reliably liberal record, though he’s clearly to the right of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and has worked closely with some Republicans to advance his priorities.
It’s a profile that could ultimately help him stand out among his 2020 counterparts — if his bipartisan leanings and campaign of “love” can connect with primary voters eager to take down President Donald Trump.
In just the latest example of the party’s rapid shift, Booker — long a pro-Israel stalwart — is attending the AIPAC conference in Washington this weekend but only to meet with New Jersey constituents. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sanders (I-Vt.) are staying away entirely.
And in an appearance with Pod Save America last week, Booker expressed new openness to killing the filibuster and admitted the progressive podcast fires “a lot of people up” on the kinds of process reforms once discussed only on the fringes. He’s also sounding increasingly open to changes to the Supreme Court, like imposing term limits on justices.
Yet in the interview with POLITICO, Booker deemed the tit-for-tat among Democrats and Republicans that eliminated the filibuster on all nominations over the past few years as a “race to the bottom.”
“Are we going to turn the United States Senate into a majoritarian body like the House? Because I think if that’s the case there would be regret among 100 senators, regardless of the party,” Booker said. “Is there a way to get back to creating a body that deals by comity and serves the American purpose?”
The party’s energy is clearly concentrated among younger, more progressive activists. But more than 60 percent of the Democratic electorate most likely to vote in primaries is 40 and older, a statistical reality that potentially benefits a candidate who is viewed as more in the middle and focused on pursuing bipartisanship.
Though Booker brandishes a progressive form of politics and is eager to seize the spotlight at committee hearings, he’s also developed surprisingly close relationships with conservative Republicans like Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Tim Scott of South Carolina. He often cites those friendships on the campaign trail as evidence that he is the candidate able to heal a divided nation.
At the same time, Booker says that Republicans are “clearly” playing by a different set of rules than Democrats. And he seemed particularly miffed that the “blue slip” tradition of allowing home state senators veto power over appellate court nominees has officially been abandoned by the GOP.
“That just creates a certain sense with the Democrats: When we are in power, we’re going to double down and do the same thing at least,” Booker said, deliberating as he spoke. “That doesn’t mean … that we should somehow not try to balance the scales.”
Liberal groups argue their party’s most ambitious proposals — not to mention counterbalancing the Supreme Court seat stolen from Barack Obama — are impossible under current Senate norms and rules.
Activists say Booker is listening to them, even as he refuses to embrace their strategies just yet. For instance, Booker argues a Democratic Senate majority could use budget reconciliation to repeal the GOP tax cuts without gutting the 60-vote threshold for legislation. People close to Booker say he’s unlikely to be the first to explicitly endorse killing the filibuster or expanding the Supreme Court.
His stances track neatly with a record that leans left, with an occasional tack toward the center.
He routinely votes against Trump’s nominees, endorses the “Green New Deal” and “Medicare for All” and said he’d risk expulsion in his fight against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
But he also took weeks before declaring his eventual support for Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, drew flak for opposing a measure aimed at importing drugs from Canada and made liberals squirm way back in the 2012 presidential campaign when he called attacks on Mitt Romney’s old firm Bain Capital “nauseating.”
In the previous Congress, Booker worked closely with Trump aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner to reform criminal justice laws, while teaming with Grassley and Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham to try and protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by the president.
No one would call Booker a moderate, but in the spectrum of the Democratic primary he falls somewhere in the middle. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who plays basketball against the former Stanford tight end, described Booker and his politics this way: A “smart son of a B.”
Jim Demers, a Democratic strategist and longtime New Hampshire activist backing Booker, called the senator a “pragmatic progressive.”
“Voters are frustrated, and they’re frustrated because the country is so divided,” Demers said. “He’s walking a fine line of espousing positions that are very progressive but also recognizing that when this election is over, a president has to get things done.”
Simply by virtue of how many Democrats are in the primary, there’s also a decent chance that Booker falls short and remains a senator for decades. For that reason, his GOP colleagues say he’s unlikely to be the candidate trashing the Senate as a campaign tactic.
“He’s a positive person who looks for the best in situations. And he is critical when necessary. But not critical as a way of simply attracting folks to a conversation,” Scott, the Republican senator, said of Booker.
It’s also not clear whether process reforms resonate with voters, anyway.
“In Iowa, how many people are going to vote on your position on the Supreme Court? … It’s probably a mistake to overhype the power of some of those process litmus tests,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who is close friends with Booker. “Cory probably has a legitimate interest in trying to find a long term way for Republicans and Democrats to work together.”
There’s also some evidence that primary voters are leery of candidates who are moving too far to the left. In a recent Iowa poll where both Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders dominated the field, 44 percent of those surveyed said Sanders’ political views were too liberal. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the Iowa Democrats polled said Biden’s views were “about right.”
The same poll showed 42 percent believed Booker’s views were “just right,” with only 9 percent seeing him as “too liberal.”
“My sense is he is trying to distinguish himself,” said Brady Quirk-Garvan, former chairman of the Charleston County Democrats in South Carolina, who has endorsed Booker. “Booker is now saying: Here’s what is different and unique about me. Here’s what makes me uniquely qualified to be the nominee.”