On Friday, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., former mayor of Newark, entered the Democratic presidential race, just as Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s political career was exploding. A page of Northam’s medical school yearbook containing a photograph of a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb was unearthed only hours after Booker — a single African-American man — joined the most diverse major-party presidential field in history. Northam’s yearbook was a reminder of a depraved, widespread mind-set that existed two decades after the Civil Rights Act’s passage. In the Democratic Party, unlike the Republican Party, racism gets no sanctuary. The Democratic Party of 2019 simply will not abide by a white governor’s racist play-acting, even accounting for the passage of 35 years.
Booker and other presidential contenders, as well as liberal Democratic groups and state Democrats, found Northam’s apology, which initially left unclear if Northam was the man dressed as a Klansman or the man in blackface, entirely insufficient. (“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” Northam said Friday. “This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine, and in public service.”) Northam later denied he was either person in the photo, and insisted in a news conference Saturday that he had never even seen the photograph before it was shown to him Friday. But he admitted that he “darkened” his face with shoe polish to dress as Michael Jackson for a dance contest in the same year of 1984. His career lies in tatters and his nearly inevitable political demise hangs over the Commonwealth.
Republicans who piled on were harshly rebuked by Democrats and pundits who asked why they had not similarly demanded President Donald Trump and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to resign. The Democratic Party ostracizes Northam in a way that Republicans — no matter how many racist comments Trump and King made — can never unequivocally do. The sad fact is that the GOP harbors a narrow stratum of racists and a wider stratum of those who tolerate them; the Democratic Party relies on an increasingly diverse electorate.
Booker’s presidential candidacy in all likelihood will last longer than Northam’s tenure as governor. Booker got positive reviews among Democrats for his splashy introductory ad, upbeat message of unity and progressive agenda including, as The Post reported, “a pilot program to create a federal jobs guarantee, a plan to stop anti-competitive hiring practices and monopolies, and a refundable housing credit program that would aim to help Americans struggling to pay rent.” In addition, his “sweeping criminal justice reform plans include legalizing marijuana, reducing workplace discrimination against those who have been convicted of crimes, giving federal money to areas the government determines were most hurt by the war on drugs, and improving the treatment of incarcerated women, among a host of other policies, aides said.”
Why should Democrats go with Booker — and not Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., or any of the other possible contenders? There are other candidates as charismatic as Booker (Harris) and as ambitious. There are candidates equally if not more wonky (Warren). Booker does bring a sunny, almost giddy optimism. No candidate uses “love” with greater frequency. The question arises, however, as to whether that tone — lacking the sharp edges of Warren and the righteous anger of Harris — is what the party wants. Booker will need to show he can land a punch and deflect what surely will be the onslaught of Trumpian insults and attacks. He must eschew showboating and self-parody. (Spartacus must not be mentioned.)
For now, however, his candidacy underscores the future of his party surely as does Northam’s humiliation and one, hopes, Northam’s swift departure. Unfortunately, it also reminds us that only one party has definitively and absolutely turned its back on a history.
(Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.)