With decisive victories in Michigan and Missouri on Tuesday, Joe Biden widened his lead over Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. With looming primary contests in Biden-friendly, delegate-rich Florida, Ohio, and Illinois, Sanders could be forced to concede sooner than he’d like.
A number of factors have aided Biden’s ascent. The dearth of debates before the Super Tuesday primaries helped to shield him from voters. Moderate Democrats and the party establishment coalesced around him after South Carolina, fearful of losing the House with a Sanders-led ticket. And as the race narrowed, Sanders struggled to win votes outside his base of young progressive supporters.
One move that almost certainly had no bearing on Biden’s step to the cusp of the nomination Tuesday? New Jersey senator Cory Booker’s endorsement, which he offered Monday over Twitter.
In one sense, the contrast between Booker and Biden could not be clearer. Booker, for all of his insipid theatrics as a senator — from the “I am Spartacus” gambit to the “tears of rage” performance — is a young, capable politician in control of his faculties. He is also a black man in a party eager to project diversity. Biden, by contrast, is an old white man who can hardly finish a paragraph without slurring his speech or succumbing to some cringe-inducing gaffe that betrays his cognitive decline.
In another sense, though, both Booker and Biden are ostensible “moderates” at a moment in which — if recent electoral results are to be believed — a significant faction of Democratic voters are hankering for a centrist figurehead.
Why did Booker fail where Biden succeeded? The Occam’s-razor explanation is probably the right one: Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president, while Booker has been an unremarkable senator with few legislative achievements.
But even with his inherent advantages, the former vice president’s vulnerabilities would be insurmountable in a normal primary cycle. His mental lapses — mistakenly declaring his candidacy for the Senate, calling the most popular rifle in America the “AR-14,” failing to remember the preamble to the Declaration of Independence — are less anomalous mistakes than a window into a receding mind, one that is poorly equipped to lead the free world, the current president’s relative fitness (or lack thereof) notwithstanding.
If Biden was eminently beatable, could Booker have beaten him? On paper, the New Jersey senator figured to be well primed to challenge Biden for the “moderate” vote. His heterodox views on school choice and relatively pro-business Senate record could have enamored him to centrist Democrats, who were resigned to a choice between an enfeebled septuagenarian, a small-time mayor, and a lamp-throwing senator with narrow appeal. But Booker, no doubt wary of being attacked as a moderate, Wall Street–friendly candidate in a field whose progressive wing included class warriors such as Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, chose to tack left, taking positions that made him appear unelectable to lunch-bucket Democrats more interested in lowering health-care costs than in upending the patriarchy.
Last year Booker wrote “An Open Letter to Men on Abortion” for GQ, exhorting men “to acknowledge that they benefit from abortion rights and reproductive health care” and waxing poetic about his efforts “to be the best ally and partner I can be” in the fight for legal abortion. Normal people — whose votes Booker, even in a Democratic primary, would presumably need — do not use the word “ally” that way. They almost certainly never make consecutive use of the words “reproductive health care” in casual conversation. That language appeals to Wesleyan professors and wine-track moms in the suburbs, sure. But Elizabeth Warren already had a stranglehold on such voters, who in any event, are not the ones fueling Biden’s rise. Meanwhile, the voters who did eventually flock to Biden were likely also put off by Booker’s proposal to decriminalize unauthorized border crossings into the United States, an idea that polls terribly across almost every demographic in America, including self-described moderate Democrats.
In short, Booker ran as a progressive and willingly forfeited the moderate voters he needed to win the nomination. The shame for Democrats it that unlike Biden, he is lucid and presentable. Had he focused his campaign on winning over Biden voters — “O’Biden-Bama” Democrats, as the former vice president has called them — he could well have been standing in the position of the doddering old warhorse he just endorsed.