In the current political environment, it appears as strange a mismatch of bedfellows as any in recent memory. But something in the water on Capitol Hill is connecting freshman senator and social media maven Cory Booker (D-N.J.) with ranting Tea Party and libertarian idol Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
At first glance, it’s the Odd Couple on anabolic steroids. While both are known to actively harness the gab-gifting power of their unstoppable mouths, each also hails from the outer edge of his respective party’s wing, at least on the surface. Booker is typically seen as a neoliberal urbanist, and Paul as a country-punk rock conservative.
Each presents such a brand of edge that any combination of the two should produce a cold, tangy, metallic taste. And with the two representing states that are polar post-Civil War opposites, one might argue that it’s not the smartest move for either to be seen in the other’s company.
And yet a bizarre holiday-eve bromance erupted between the two last month. Tweeted Paul in a virtual pound that seemed less Kentucky bluegrass and more Newark concrete: “@CoryBooker how about mandatory minimum sentencing reform instead?”
To which Booker replied: “Yes, if u throw in reforming Fed Hemp & Marijuana laws u’ve got a deal!” Which was followed by the Jersey junior’s enthusiastic, slightly rookie “U told me last week” after Paul openly bragged about having authored the Industrial Hemp Farming Act.
It seems unusual: the black urbane politician, who rented a place in the projects, teaming up with a white, rising-star son of a perpetual presidential candidate who put out bigoted newsletters for fun. But it’s actually very smart politics.
Both politicians battle perceptions that they are mouthy lightweights, and both seek a moment to show that they are serious, reach-across-the-aisle legislators who craft big-change bills. The open alliance exhibits fresh signs of political savvy—especially in an age when Democrats and Republicans (even in the Senate) are less likely to talk to each other than pouting toddlers in day care. Don’t be surprised if these two start pushing bills with a libertarian bent on everything from legalizing weed to beefing up digital privacy or abolishing the National Security Agency.
Their alliance gives Booker and Paul an opportunity to present themselves as tone-changing agents (something voters had expected from the current White House occupant). In this mix, we find another young senator of color with high expectations who could resurrect the possibilities. To Democrats (and many Republicans), Paul is as radioactive as Fukushima, and yet Booker chooses him as an inaugural sample of bipartisan cooperation.
Booker, like Paul, wants in on that emerging bloc of young and increasingly influential libertarian voters. They care about things like the drug war, drones and the NSA. Agitator cum laudes like Edward Snowden are praised as folk heroes by this demographic, and as any keen politician with an eye on the White House between now and the next decade knows, this is a key swing electorate. Paul, obviously building up a bid for 2016, has a head start on that segment through the longtime efforts of his kooky former-congressman father, Ron.
This is what drives Paul’s seemingly erratic but very well-placed attacks on everything from the anti-drug police state to the military-industrial intelligence complex. There is recognition of the new American anger, as evidenced by a recent Gallup poll showing 42 percent of voters identifying themselves as independents. And this makes Paul one of the more dangerously underrated front-runners for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
For Booker, there are short- and long-range advantages to jumping on the Paul wagon. In the immediate future is Booker’s re-election battle—this year. There are whispers that Booker’s 2013 run against GOP contender Steve Lonegan in a special election ended up with a much slimmer margin of victory for Booker than it should have: 55 percent to 44 percent. Facing the prospect of Republican competition in 2014, Booker is publicly partnering with Paul to offset any potholes on the way to a full six years in the Senate. Long-term, should an open path to the White House present itself, Booker can get a second look from libertarians and anti-government conservatives.
While Booker-Paul is not a match made in heaven, it’s a match with a basketful of tasty political twists. Booker gets libertarian street cred, and Paul can get a photo op with the world’s next famous black politician. The Kentucky senator with the racially shady pops has also made interesting rounds on the African-American outreach circuit, giving clumsily delivered talks in predominantly black locations rarely charted by a white Republican—places such as Howard University and Detroit—even though few black people showed up at the Motor City affair. Perhaps this will lock up just enough black votes to get Paul across the presidential finish line—or so he thinks.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.