(The Root) — After appearing on Meet the Press on Sunday, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, a surrogate for President Obama's re-election campaign, raised more than simple awareness about the president's tax cuts for small businesses and middle-class families. The popular mayor, widely considered a growing Democratic star, also raised quite a few eyebrows.
During a panel on economic policy in which Booker praised Obama's record with working Americans, he went off-message when he chided the Obama campaign for making an issue of Mitt Romney's work at Bain Capital.
"From a very personal level, I'm not about to sit here and indict private equity," Booker said, adding that he's "very uncomfortable" with criticism of Romney's private-sector work. "If you look at the totality of Bain Capital's record, they've done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses."
Booker went on to equate attacks on Romney's record at Bain with criticism of Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright. "This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides," he said. "Stop attacking private equity, stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. This stuff has got to stop, because what it does is it undermines, to me, what this country should be focused on."
When all hell broke loose — angry Obama supporters taking to Twitter to express their disappointment to Booker, a triumphant Republican National Committee promoting his remarks and John McCain applauding Booker for his "straight talk" — later on Sunday Booker posted a YouTube video walking back on some of his criticisms.
He first clarified that he is simply frustrated by negative campaigning, especially in light of the mounting influence of super PACs and more pressing concerns. "When I see people in my city struggling with real issues and still feeling the challenges of this economy, and still looking for hope and opportunity and real specific plans, I get very upset when I see such a level of dialogue that calls to our lowest common denominators and not the kind of things that are going to unify us as a nation and move us forward," he said.
Booker then argued that Romney's private-sector work was, in fact, fair game: "Mitt Romney has made his business record a centerpiece of his campaign. He's talked about himself as a job creator. Therefore it is reasonable, and in fact I encourage it, for the Obama campaign to examine that record and to discuss it. I have no problem with that.
"In fact, I believe that Mitt Romney in many ways is not being honest about his role and his record even as a business person and is shaping it to serve his political purposes and not necessarily including all the facts from his time there," said Booker.
Beyond the anger from the left and glee from the right, Booker's statements have also sparked more nuanced takes on the balance that campaign spokespeople must tow, the cutthroat nature of politics and how Booker's faux pas could have been strategically designed to help him politically, in the long run.
The Trouble With Speaking Your Truth
According to Michelle Bernard, president of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy, Booker's remarks were honest and refreshing. "If you read in proper context his comments about the attacks on private equity, as well as people who were trying to bring up Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I don't find anything wrong whatsoever with what he said," Bernard told The Root. "The fact that he came under attack is absurd. It's a sad state of affairs that in American politics you cannot call things the way you see them and speak the truth."
Michael Fauntroy, an associate professor at the George Mason School of Public Policy, concurred that there's nothing wrong with people speaking their truth, but added, "The problem is, he was speaking on behalf of someone else, and when you speak on behalf of someone else you have to sing their tune, not yours. Mayor Booker told the truth as he sees it, and then realized almost immediately that his truth runs counter to the campaign's purposes. That's the mistake he made."
On the other hand, Fauntroy posits, Booker's remarks were also politically strategic. "He of course has aspirations, statewide and perhaps national," he said. "If he's going to run statewide in New Jersey, he's going to need Wall Street money and venture capital money. He understands that he can't [attack] venture capitalism the way some other Democrat could because that could pose problems for him down the line."
Yet at the heart of Booker's argument was the idea that focusing on Bain Capital ultimately distracts from issues that most voters care about. This lies in stark contrast to the approach by the Obama campaign, which doubled down on the attack line this week by launching Romney Economics, a website examining specific tactics employed by Romney at Bain Capital, as well as a new video focusing on job losses that ensued at an Indiana company in which Bain invested.
"That is ripe for discussion in the context of the presidential election because Romney has made his record at Bain — as someone who created jobs and knows how to run a business — what he's running on," Bernard allowed. "But in the long run, does a conversation about whether private equity is good or bad really matter to the people who need the most help in the country? For people struggling to make ends meet, none of this matters, and to me that's what Cory Booker was saying."
Fauntroy argues that the president practically has no choice but to focus on Bain. "It's a false equivalency to equate Bain and Jeremiah Wright," he said. "The last time the president even spoke with Jeremiah Wright, according to campaign officials, was sometime before his so-called 'race speech' in April of 2008. So there's no real reason to bring in Wright. Bain, however, is at the core of Romney's candidacy."
Booker's Standing in Team Obama
So now that Booker has walked back his Sunday show shakeup, will he be able to live it down as an Obama surrogate?
"In the long run, he'll be fine because he's an eloquent spokesman for the campaign," said Fauntroy. "They may keep the reins on him a little tighter, and pick and choose a bit more about under what circumstances he speaks, but he's still valuable to them."
On this point, Bernard agreed. "All of this is absolutely meaningless," she said. "Booker has got a bright future ahead of him."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.