Sen. Cory Booker talks about politics in grand, even spiritual terms.
Speaking to NPR about his run for the presidency, the New Jersey Democrat used phrases like "coalitions of conscience," "sacred honor" and "courageous empathy."
But those hopeful ideas pose a major challenge for Booker: how to translate his aggressively optimistic view of American democracy into any sort of policy action, especially with such gaping differences between the two parties on a wide range of policy areas.
He's the first of the 2020 presidential candidates whom NPR's Morning Edition spoke to in a series of conversations to explore their core campaign messages called Opening Arguments.
Host Steve Inskeep interviewed Booker about not only what he wants to accomplish as president, but also why he thinks large (and often progressive) policy leaps are possible.
"The founders were imperfect geniuses. They wrote a lot of our bigotries into [the Constitution]. ... If you think about how we have overcome those things, it's always been by creating, first, calls to consciousness, speaking truth about the injustices, and then bringing together those uncommon coalitions."
"We are a nation of conscience, and I found partners on the other side of the aisle who agree with me on these issues. And we can build from there. In fact, when I first came to the Senate, people laughed. I had people telling me, 'There's no way you're going to get a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill done.' "
Underlying many of Booker's points is a firm belief that it's possible to create bipartisan consensus, even while the partisan divide in America seems to grow ever wider.
Booker argues that he's the man to create that consensus because of his record as mayor of Newark, where he at times worked with Republican Gov. Chris Christie; his work passing the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act on criminal justice; and legislation he worked on with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., to create "opportunity zones." The basic idea is that investors would get a tax break for putting their recent investment gains into projects in low-income areas.
Booker acknowledges that building bridges between Republicans and Democrats will be difficult. He told NPR the story of a Midwestern farm family that at first refused to meet with him.
"They call the person that was showing me around and said, 'Hey we're a Christian family. We can't have Cory Booker in our home.' Because we have these outrage machines that are making the highest corporate profits they've ever made, because of their telling us to hate each other so much," Booker said.
In the end, however, Booker said he won the family over via "dad jokes" and finding some common areas of agreement on farm policy.
"This is a system that just grinds people into it who are the most vulnerable. You know, you can judge a lot by a country by who they incarcerate.
"There are some countries that incarcerate political opposition, some countries that incarcerate the media ... but if you look at our prisons and jails we incarcerate overwhelmingly the addicted, mentally ill, low-income, low-income, low-income folks ... and then disproportionately people of color."
Criminal justice reform is one of Booker's key policy areas in his presidential policy platform — he often cites the statistics that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its incarcerated population. He was a key force behind the FIRST STEP Act, which President Trump signed into law. Among other things, that law ends the "three-strike penalty" that gave some offenders automatic life sentences, it helps judges avoid imposing mandatory minimum sentences, and it gives prisoners more access to rehabilitation programs.
Booker will soon introduce what he calls the Next Step Act, a package of further criminal justice changes. It includes provisions that would legalize marijuana at the federal level, eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and give felons the right to vote.
This is one big area where Booker would likely have an uphill battle with Republicans. A recent Florida measure to give felons the right to vote faced stiff GOP opposition, though it passed and went into effect in January.
"We were one vote shy from bringing down Medicare eligibility to 55. One vote shy. I'm going to fight for that one vote when I'm running in 2020, because what would that have done?"
Booker is one among several 2020 presidential candidates backing Bernie Sanders' Medicare-for-all bill. However, he stressed in this interview that he has also backed other, less-sweeping health care proposals, like reducing the Medicare eligibility age to 55, from the current age of 65.
He also said that despite pressure from some on the left, he would not eliminate the Senate filibuster to pass a health care overhaul like Medicare-for-all.
His reasoning is that without the filibuster, "the kind of things they could have done in the first two years of the Trump administration would have been so damaging to people."
"And we need to understand that there's good reason to have a Senate where we're forced to find pragmatic bipartisan solutions," he added.
"Why do we need to universally condemn entire sectors of our society, as opposed to talking about what's happening within them that is in violation of values and creating regulations and rules that make sure that they are affirming what's in the best interest of our country?"
Booker has close ties to the technology industry, even while he has co-sponsored greater regulation on tech companies. A recent piece from Recode's Theodore Schleifer detailed the tension at the heart of this relationship. As tech companies are at the center of discussions about privacy, political misinformation and hate speech, Booker's past friendliness with the industry — and potential for taking donations from the Silicon Valley elite — could turn off some progressive voters.
Booker is staking out positions critical of tech companies, saying that he supports more regulation on privacy and security issues. He said too few companies control too much of the industry to expect them to self-regulate, and he criticized practices like contracting low-wage jobs, instead of providing corporate benefits to those workers.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker says he wants to unite a divided nation.
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CORY BOOKER: I love rugged individualism and self-reliance. But rugged individualism didn't get us to the moon. It didn't beat the Nazis or Jim Crow.
INSKEEP: He says collective action did. Booker is a senator from New Jersey. He's centered his presidential campaign on unity and love. He's the former Democratic mayor of Newark, N.J., who collaborated with former Republican Governor Chris Christie. His presidential announcement video was filled with diverse Americans drumming and playing in marching bands.
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BOOKER: In America, we have a common pain. But what we're lacking is a sense of common purpose.
INSKEEP: OK. But many politicians say things like that. Who does Booker mean to bring together, and how? We asked when he came by our studios accompanied by a single aide. It is the first of our Opening Arguments - talks with prominent declared presidential contenders.
BOOKER: It wasn't Strom Thurmond that ran to the Senate floor and said one day, it's time for those negro people to have some rights. No, it was blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, Democrats and Republicans who joined in uncommon coalitions of conscience to deal with injustice.
INSKEEP: So is it not exactly a progressive coalition? It's a coalition of conscience is the phrase that you just used.
BOOKER: You know, these labels that we slap on each other and then dismiss each other because we're - have different labels aren't helping our republic. And I'd like to start talking about shared values and shared ideals.
INSKEEP: Let me throw a hypothetical voter at you. And I've interviewed voters very much like what I'm going to describe - blue-collar guy, Lordstown, Ohio, just lost his job at a GM plant that is closing, voted once for President Obama but also found President Trump attractive, voted for him once, thinking about it again. Is that guy in your coalition?
BOOKER: That guy needs to - we need to speak to his pain. Our politics need to speak to his pain and be able to address the real concerns he has at the kitchen table. I went out to the Midwest, to the heartland and met with Republicans in Missouri, in Kansas and Nebraska on farms. And one of those families didn't even want me in their home when they researched me on their part of the Internet. They called the person I was - who was showing me around and said, hey. We're a Christian family. We can't have Cory Booker in our home.
INSKEEP: What made you unpalatable to a Christian family so described?
BOOKER: Whatever they were told by their trusted media - and we all have it. But the friend asked him to come - for me to go see him. I met him at his door. Then we went into his home and found so much common ground because we both agree that the corporate consolidation is killing the independent American family farmer.
INSKEEP: We should note that plenty of Republicans in the Senate have indicated that they like you. But what happens if it's 2021, you've been elected president the United States? Like President Obama, you try to transcend partisanship. But the political calculation of the moment for Republicans is they need to oppose you on everything. That's the only way they get back in power.
BOOKER: You know, look. If I was going to surrender to cynicism about our nation in that way - I think cynicism is a toxic spiritual state.
INSKEEP: But I mean, it happened once. What do you do when it happens again?
BOOKER: Yeah. I went to Newark, N.J., at a time that people were so disrespecting, disregarding that city. I mean, it was literally being made fun of by late-night talk show hosts. And people told me, oh, we've tried these things before. It doesn't work. And we got incredibly creative. And at times, I reached out to conservatives I could find coalitions with - Christian evangelicals - not on everything. But I found common ground. And we got things done.
If you go to Newark, N.J., right now, we've gone through our biggest economic development period in 60 years. We have - our schools were just shown to be the No. 1 beat-the-odds school system in America - high poverty, high performance. This is an election. We have a chance to have a revival of civic grace. And we need leaders that are going to be committed to those ideals and dealing with the cause of injustice in our country.
INSKEEP: Suppose you win the election. Democrats win the Senate. It's a really good 2020 for Democrats. You go out there and push for "Medicare-for-all" - goes to the United States Senate and Republicans feel it's socialism and filibuster it. Do you, at that point, urge Democrats to get rid of the filibuster?
BOOKER: No. I've heard some good arguments since February when people started getting into my face about, we've got to get rid of the filibuster. People on the left feel very strongly about it. I'm willing to listen to more arguments. But we need to understand that there's good reason to have a Senate where we're forced to find pragmatic, bipartisan solutions. Let's be a country that operates from that sense of common purpose.
INSKEEP: President Bush tried to bring together a consensus on immigration - couldn't get it done. President Obama tried to bring together a consensus on immigration, couldn't get that done, eventually took executive action. President Trump had a very different agenda for immigration, couldn't get his program done either and has just taken executive action. If you're in that same situation as the last three presidents, facing the problems with immigration right now, do you take executive action?
BOOKER: You do what you can on the powers of the presidency allow, and I will do a lot of that. I mean, what's happening with DACA kids - deferred action children, the DREAMers, as they're called, is - violates the values of people on both sides of the aisle. You have President Trump, even rhetorically, saying he supports those children. You do everything you can to affirm the values of our country. And what you don't do is what we see coming from the presidency, which is rank racist rhetoric.
INSKEEP: Was President Obama's move to, effectively, legalize, for two-year periods, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals people - was that constitutional?
BOOKER: I believe it was constitutional. I believe it was not just constitutional. It reflects common sense.
INSKEEP: Meaning that if you're president and it hasn't been taken care of yet, you might just flip it right back the way Obama had it.
BOOKER: I will do everything I can to ensure that DACA children, that DREAMers, who are Americans in every way except for a piece of paper - I had a DACA kid that came with me to the State of the Union address a year or two back. She'd started an Internet platform that helped to give employment opportunities to hundreds of people. We're going to deport her. When there's an injustice, people have to understand that often, the opposite of injustice is silence and indifference and apathy.
INSKEEP: Is Silicon Valley - the firms there, where you have lots of connections. You went to Stanford, which is nearby. Is Silicon Valley part of the coalition you want to bring together behind you?
BOOKER: You know, we need to bring this nation together. It doesn't mean we forgive what I call bad actions or bad actors. We need to make sure that whether it's Silicon Valley or the pharma industry or the big ag, we need to hold people accountable for their actions.
INSKEEP: Recode, which looks into tech stuff, wrote a long article about you. And they dug up a tweet from 2009. And you, apparently, had had an exciting day in Silicon Valley. Quote, "from green tech to social media, inspiring meetings today. Incredible Silicon Valley leaders who are literally changing, empowering the world." Do you think that's still true?
BOOKER: I mean, I don't know. We're sitting in front of each other, so I'm about to pull out...
INSKEEP: Looks like an iPhone.
BOOKER: It looks like an iPhone. And, you know, there's a democratization that's going on that technology allows. I've used it in Newark. Let's use just one platform, which is to help people get access to capital. There's so much good that is coming from technology and innovation. At the same time, though, as I lift my phone up again in front of you, do I want one of the big tech firms to be taking my data from me and doing things that are violative of my values?
These are things that are wrong. And so why do we need to universally condemn entire sectors of our society as opposed to talking about what's happening within them that is in violation of our values and creating regulations and rules that make sure that they are affirming what's in the best interest of our country?
INSKEEP: Senator Booker, thanks so much for coming by.
BOOKER: I appreciate you. Thank you.
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