In presidential race, sharp elbows or big hugs?

Biden and Booker speak of kindness in politics but have pivoted from it. Yet love can be a winning strategy.

Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, and former Vice President Joe Biden talk after the July 31 Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit.

Listen to a stump speech by Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker and you’ll hear calls for “civic grace” and “courageous empathy.” Read a Joe Biden political sermon and you’ll hear him praise “civility” and consensus building. Yet during their televised debates, both Messrs. Booker and Biden found it hard to practice what they preach. Each threw ad hominem barbs at the other. Instead of professed ideals, they resorted to point-scoring insults.

Chalk it up to human weakness or the cutthroat nature of today’s politics. They both undercut their most strategic message as a leader: cooperation. Neither candidate has totally abandoned such olive-branch rhetoric, but as they eye the polls and the demands of donors, both use it selectively.

Mr. Biden suffered a dip in support after a dig by Kamala Harris in the June debate and tweaked his approach. Mr. Booker still supports the use of “unreasonable, irrational, impractical love” in governance but is polling near the bottom of the pack. He has taken tougher stances on opponents as well.

Despite what Mr. Booker says, love can and should be reasonable, rational, and practical. A quick look at history suggests this is so.

In his 2016 book “Toward Democracy,” historian James T. Kloppenberg traces the roots of modern self-government to a few essential qualities of love, such as deliberation, reciprocity, and plurality based on equality. Citizens in a democracy must resolve conflicts peacefully, accept differences in policy and identity, and expect the same in return. Crucial to these attributes of self-governance is a selfless love summed up in the golden rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated.

America’s founders wove these ideas into the Constitution even though they didn’t always practice them. They hoped with enough mutual respect and a system of checks and balances that elected officials would find common ground. When the threat of a civil war tested the nation, Abraham Lincoln said in his first inaugural address that political strains should not break the “bonds of affection.”

Messrs. Booker and Biden need not look back in history to find a persuasive case for political love. They’ve both made the case in recent years. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Mr. Booker electrified the crowd with a paean to patriotism beyond just “love of country,” but also a love for “your countrymen and your countrywomen.” Mr. Biden announced his campaign with a stirring video, in which he said “America is an idea,” and central to that idea is a guarantee that “everyone is treated with dignity.” Both candidates contend that more is at stake than winning or partisan debate. 

Mr. Booker capped that same speech with an oft-used phrase: “Love trumps hate.” He’s right, but it remains to be seen what happens when love seems less convenient. As the going gets tough in the presidential contest, the toughest must keep loving.

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