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Cory Booker wants to be the nicest Democrat running for president. But his own past makes that difficult.

People are already questioning the Senator's sincerity and authenticity, including how much of his "nice guy" shtick is a political act.
Image: Senator Cory Booker announces run for President
Senator Cory Booker talks to reporters during a press conference in front of his home after his announcement that is he running for President of the United States, in Newark, New Jersey on February 1, 2019.Justin Lane / EPA

Senator Cory Booker has been auditioning for president ever since he shoveled snow off of a sidewalk in 2010 as the mayor of Newark, N.J., causing a twitter sensation. Can his nice guy act win him the Democratic nomination for president?

In a normal election cycle, maybe. But not in 2020.

However, if he doesn't win the nomination, it won't be because of Kamala Harris or Beto O'Rourke — but it might be because of a guy named T-Bone.

When Booker was recounting his years in Newark, often while running for office, he used to tell people a story about a person named T-Bone, a drug dealer who had once menaced him but later came seeking his help to stay out of prison only to then recount (and cry about) his difficult childhood. T-Bone could never be found — and everyone from political supporters to the National Review tried. In 2013, when confronted about it by a Washington Post reporter, Booker went on to tell a long- winded story about how the media is quite unfair.

Booker’s problem in this 2020 presidential race is going to be about his sincerity and authenticity — or how much of his "nice guy" shtick is a political act. And every criticism will come back around to that, one way or another.

Booker’s campaign launch video leaned all the way into his personal qualities, invoking both a religious feeling and a civil rights movement vibe. And the night before his announcement, he was prayed for by his pastor and the congregation of his church, Metropolitan Baptist church.

By the afternoon after the release of his video, he was denying the one thing that Democrats want to hear from their candidates: That the president is racist, and we have a problem with race in our nation.

In his comments to the press after his presidential announcement, Booker could not state openly that President Trump is a racist, opting to criticize him for “bigoted language.” (Other Democratic hopefuls have been more forthright: Sherrod Brown said Trump was a racist; Kamala Harris spoke about Trump and his racist policies; and even Bernie Sanders said Trump is a racist.) Booker, when pressed, said, of the president, “I don’t know the heart of anybody. I’ll leave that to the Lord”.

While the Lord deliberates, though, Booker obfuscates. Democrats in 2020 want to win the presidency, not a popularity contest.

Booker, to date, has been relying on the language of love and a youthful preacher’s cadence to win over Democratic supporters. It can be no coincidence that the drumbeat in Booker’s campaign launch video evokes one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous speeches, “The Drum Major Instinct," in which King compares the desire of people to "achieve distinction" with the desire to serve others, love and fight for justice. King warns that the urge to be recognized, if not used in service of others, "causes one’s personality to become distorted" and can lead to "trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting."

Perhaps even about T-Bone.

Booker is known for soaring words such as his speech at the Democratic national convention in 2016, yet, he can also be pointed and critical when it comes to his political opponents. His verbal dressing down of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Neilsen, for instance, over Trump's comments about "shithole countries" was hailed by the Democrats, and derided by Republicans. When he flouted the rules during the Kavanaugh hearing by releasing protected information was welcome by some, and grandstanding by other,

Both supporters and detractors have talked about Booker's penchant for "performative" language. David Axelrod remarked — about Booker's delivery after hosting him at the Institute for Politics at the University of Chicago — that the senator's "flair for the dramatic" can go a bit too far. Megan McCain questioned Booker directly on "The View" about his "I am Spartacus"comment at the Kavanaugh hearings, and he responded, "You can't speak to authenticity. You just have to be who you are."

Booker's authenticity, though, is also regularly questioned by liberals who note that, despite living in a low-income neighborhood for the past 20 years, but his political career required the assistance of powerful rich friends. Booker took the most contributions from people employed by Wall Street for his 2014 campaign, beating out Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Another huge portion of his campaign donations come from the pharmaceutical industry, to the tune of $330,000 in 2014 alone (barely under McConnell's haul), particularly because New Jersey is the home to many pharmaceutical firms. In 2017, Booker put a pause on receiving these funds, but he'll have that history to overcome with Democratic voters at a time when drug prices are skyrocketing.

For voters, Booker's Wall Street ties and his T-Bone stories are part of the same problem: Authenticity. Can you be a liberal Democratic willing to take on billionaires, entrenched corporations and the deregulation unleashed by the Trump Administration after years of cozying up to Wall Street and pharmaceutical donors? Can you address the racial divides in America — not just what's in people's hearts, but the problems of differential education, mass incarceration and inequality of opportunity — if you can't bring yourself to call Trump a racist? And can you be trusted to tell the truth of why you've arrived at your liberal politics if you made up a T-Bone to explain to white people a cartoon version of black intergenerational trauma?

Maybe he can. But, in 2020, maybe he shouldn't.