DES MOINES, Iowa — The mood is melancholy inside Hy-Vee Hall as Sen. Spartacus descends on Des Moines.
A chartered jet had waited for Sen. Cory Booker at Reagan airport in D.C., and it flew him to flyover country, where he was the keynote speaker at the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Fall Gala. His party has just suffered a gut punch. Despite a full-court press in which every possible weapon was fired, President Trump got Brett Kavanaugh through the Judiciary Committee and then the full Senate, and thus confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Booker, who fought Kavanaugh in committee, in the press, and on the floor, now faces his first serious presidential venue. When Booker opens up, it is clear he knows that what works in D.C. won’t work in Des Moines tonight. He isn’t seething. He isn’t crying. Booker is different because the Democrats he is addressing are depressed.
This might be the first-ever conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Roe v. Wade might be in danger. Hopes of overturning Heller and Citizens United rulings are now dim. The despair is palpable in the convention center.
More than 1,000 activists and donors and politicos have crowded into the convention space, seeking solace in the beer and looking “for something to bring us out of doom and gloom," as Gabriella and Madeline Sarcone put it. Hurt after Hillary Clinton lost, the 20-something sisters are now heartbroken because Kavanaugh is on the high court.
Gabriella complains that “there is a lot to vote against in 2020 and the midterms” while Madeline wants “to be excited for someone again for a change.”
Their despondence comes courtesy of Senate Republicans and despite the demonstrative resistance of tonight's headline speaker. Exactly one month earlier, on the third day of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, the junior senator from New Jersey compared himself to the gladiator Spartacus. Booker broke the rules and released confidential documents about the nominee. He dared Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to expel him. He captured a news cycle.
It was all a stunt, of course. The documents, emails between Kavanaugh and other staffers in the Bush White House, had been made public that morning and were noncontroversial duds anyway. It was also part of a grand failure. The Senate confirmed Kavanaugh 50-48.
None of those theatrics seem to comfort those ambling past the complimentary purple and pink NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood booths. When two friendly female volunteers pose for a photographer, “Kava-Nope” posters in hand, a baby boomer woman scolds from across the room. Smiles are not appropriate, as they have just learned, on the day a fifth-conservative justice gets confirmed. Embarrassed, the young volunteers offer to retake the picture.
But while everyone is aware of the current political situation, not everyone is as prickly. The Des Moines demonstrators gathered here are different from the D.C. disruptors, shrieking on the steps of Capitol Hill and banging on the doors of the Supreme Court. None of these Iowans screams in agony. Not a single pink knit hat makes an appearance. Judging by the long lines at the six cash bars strategically located throughout the venue, the Iowa Democrats even have something in common with the newest justice — they also like beer.
Booker reads the room and tones down his talk. While the vote hangs heavy over the room, Booker addresses the Kavanaugh defeat only indirectly. “I want to talk about all of us who feel hurt right now, who feel anger, who feel pain,” the senator says before launching into what sounds more like a Sunday sermon than the partisan screeds he is famous for in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
This is smart. The speakers before Booker talked policy. Gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell received hearty applause for boring boilerplate lines about the importance of collective bargaining and the necessity of rolling back privatization.
This lukewarm fare isn't the stuff of subpar politicians. This milquetoast material is, believe it or not, the deliberate strategy of 2018 Democrats.
About 45 miles north of the state capitol in Perry during a meet-and-greet earlier in the day, Democratic House candidate Cindy Axne explains it.
“I am not about partisan politics, and that’s where we need to get to in this entire country,” Axne says after spending about an hour talking about healthcare and trade wars but barely breathing a word about Trump. “I know there’s good Republicans and Democrats on both sides. Those are the people we need to elect and then we will get the best representatives for everybody in these races.”
Axne's aversion to partisan politics has helped her make her race a tossup, she believes.
Booker does something similar later that night making a point never to mention Trump by name, doing his best to transform gloom into motivation.
“Hope is the act of conviction that despair can never have the last word. We’re not defined in this state by Republicans in power; we’re defined by how we respond to them. We’re not defined by a president who mocks a hero, Dr. Blasey Ford,” Booker says. “We’re not defined by a president who doesn’t believe women.”
It is the closest Booker comes to directly addressing Trump and the judicial controversy. Long on rhetoric and short on policy, Booker offers the Democratic faithful the hopeful sermon they didn’t know they wanted.
Booker urges them to be faithful to history, comparing the failure to defeat the nomination of the president’s latest Supreme Court nominee to the early setback of the Civil Rights movement.
“We Democrats know that change never comes from Washington. It comes to Washington,” Booker preaches. “One day, Strom Thurmond didn’t sit around and say, ‘It’s about time those Negro people have civil rights.’ It was about black folks and white folks coming together and demanding change.”
None of the dearly beloved Democratic voters seem to raise an eye. They aren’t as partisan as their activist brethren currently protesting in the streets of D.C., but they easily accept that confirming an imminently qualified nominee with a dozen years of experience on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals was somehow tantamount to the evils perpetuated by Jim Crow.
The senator doesn’t give them time to think otherwise. He mixes compelling personal stories with self-deprecating jokes about his upbringing making certain, all the while, that the crowd knows that his mother and a couple dozen of cousins all hail from Iowa.
Booker then urges them to be faithful to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, a document he interprets as “a declaration of interdependence.” The Founding Fathers weren’t just risking everything at a particular time during a particular struggle, the senator says, they were telling generations to come to continue to “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
For the most part, Booker manages to avoid the partisanship that plays well on cable television these days, relying instead on rhetoric fuzzy and vague.
But toward the end, Booker finally delivers partisan fire and brimstone. The Democratic Party, he bellows, is “the party that cares about every single person, black or white, Christian or Jewish.”
Rattling off different demographics, he one by one checks all the identity politics boxes. Democrats are the party of “voting rights” and “civil rights,” as well as the party of “women’s rights” and “LGBTQ rights.” Democrats are also somehow the exclusive defenders of “the Americans with Disabilities Act” and “the environment.” Summing up, Booker declares Democrats “the party of we, not the party of me. It is the party of inclusion, not the party of exclusion.”
Then inexplicably, just for good measure, the senator throws in that his is the party that believes “that someone who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.” At that ripped-off Dave Barry line about dinner manners, the crowd erupts.
At the end of the night, and after four separate standing ovations, Booker walks off stage.
“Amen,” he says.
Everyone, from the $10,000 tables in the front to the $25 bleacher seats in the back, cheers. This is the Good News delivered unto Iowa Democrats by the first top-tier Democratic candidate to perform a full tour of the state.
As a sweat-stained but always smiling Booker poses for an almost endless line of selfies, Iowa Democratic Party chairperson Tony Price tells me the undeclared presidential candidate delivered exactly what was needed “on a tough day for the party nationally.”
The Sarcone sisters are sold. “Booker 2020,” proclaims Gabriella. Other progressive superstars like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Kamala Harris of California will have to take the back bench. Madeline cried “like three times.” The doom and gloom they described earlier is gone. Like the rest of the crowd, both are more than impressed with the softer side of Spartacus.