TAUBE: Is Cory Booker eyeing the White House?

Winning a Senate seat could be a warm-up for a presidential run

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President Obama has another three years to go in the White House. Prominent Democrats like Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would obviously like to succeed him. Hence, Republicans have to get their policy positions and political ground game in order for the 2016 presidential election.

Yet there’s another up-and-coming Democrat who may have future presidential ambitions. It’s someone that Republicans should start worrying about right now: Cory Booker.

The popular mayor of Newark, N.J., is a huge favorite to win his state’s open Senate seat against Republican Steve Lonegan. This seat was vacated in June when long-serving Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg passed away. It ended speculation of a potential political heavyweight matchup against GOP Gov. Chris Christie, and left both men in position to increase their respective support for future presidential bids.

Of interest, Mr. Obama appears to be keeping a watchful eye on Mr. Booker’s potential rise to the top of the political heap.

In an Aug. 15 article by Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, an unnamed “member of the Obama circle” had this to say about the president’s feelings toward the Newark mayor: “He likes the guy. He roots for him. He’s encouraging of him.” In particular, Mr. Dovere made two interesting assessments in his piece: “Booker’s the rare example of Obama advancing the larger cause of African-American political success beyond himself. He’s also the rare example of the Obama campaign apparatus activating for anyone other than the president himself.”

At the same time, Mr. Dovere mentioned that Mr. Obama and Mr. Booker “don’t have the same simpatico relationship” that he shares with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Pennsylvania Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. “or the odd-couple personal connection he has with Oklahoma GOP Sen. Tom Coburn.” In fact, “Obama is sometimes put off by Booker’s showmanship, and gets impatient when the Newark mayor goes off message.”

To be honest, I’m not surprised Mr. Obama doesn’t know exactly what to think about Mr. Booker. While it’s true that the two men share some similar personal and political traits, they are also two very different politicians in terms of style, substance and ideology.

Mr. Booker is an unusual political animal in the Democratic Party. In many ways, he’s a throwback to the old Democratic Leadership Council, combining a touch of fiscal conservatism with a socially liberal conscience. He is more than willing to attack the politics-as-usual crowd, and likes to break from the pack. He even occasionally supports political opponents, such as his decision to defend Mitt Romney from criticism over Bain Capital during the 2012 presidential campaign.

This why Mr. Booker could become a huge political problem for the Republicans sooner rather than later, depending on how the next one or two presidential elections play out.

If Mr. Booker wins the New Jersey Senate race — and by all accounts, it would be a huge upset if he didn’t — the national spotlight would shine on him for a few years. He would become a darling of the talk-show circuit, and likely attract young people to his campaign and causes. As Kasie Hunt of NBC News put it, “If he wins, Booker would arrive at the Senate with a social-media army that includes 1.4 million Twitter followers and a drive to shake up the system — like a Democratic version of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.”

In due course, Mr. Booker’s focus would shift toward the White House. His centrist positions would gradually appeal to more and more Democrats — and in turn, quite a few moderate or disgruntled Republicans. For American conservatives, this would be the worst possible political scenario based on Mr. Booker’s wide-ranging personal appeal.

That’s why Republicans need to continue to emphasize issues that appeal to young conservatives, various religious and ethnic groups and Middle America. In other words, they must strongly support issues that matter to Americans: broad-based tax relief, smaller and more effective government, trade liberalization, personal liberties and freedoms, forward-looking foreign-policy positions and national security. These are the types of issues that would win votes and regain the popular support that conservatives have lost in recent elections.

If the GOP doesn’t do this, Mr. Booker — and other Democrats like him — are going to make it even more difficult for the Republicans to take back the White House in a timely fashion. The keys to Washington could therefore be lost for many years — and many elections — to come.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a contributor to The Washington Times.

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