Cory Booker comments: How badly have they hurt President Obama?

Mayor Cory Booker was so far off-message about the Obama campaign that he couldn’t even see the Democratic Party message. With campaign surrogates like that, who needs election opponents?

Mel Evans/AP/File
In this April 13 file photo, Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker speaks in Newark. Booker, an Obama ally, is the latest politician in damage-control mode in a presidential race already noteworthy for the informal spokespeople who veer wildly off message. His criticism of “nauseating” ads like the Obama campaign attack on Mitt Romney's business record illustrates the difficulty of controlling the message.

How badly has Cory Booker hurt President Obama’s reelection effort? His comments on “Meet the Press” over the weekend directly contradicted Democratic Party talking points, after all. The mayor of Newark, N.J., said that Obama ads attacking Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s firm, were “nauseating.” Worse, he then compared the Bain attacks to GOP efforts to link Mr. Obama with controversial pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Yes, he’s been furiously backpedaling since. But he was so far off-message with his original comments that he couldn’t even see the Democratic Party message from where he was standing. With campaign surrogates like that, who needs election opponents?

Republicans have been gleeful about this gift, the more so since a few other Democrats, including ex-Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, have echoed Mayor Booker’s defense of Bain and other private-equity firms.

“Those surrogates in speaking truth about private equity, about the free market, are a pretty brilliant piece of advertisement there that was put together,” said former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Monday.

Well, presidential campaigns are giant, slow-moving weather systems, and in the end, Booker’s comments will be just a slight drop in air pressure over a few square miles, or a wind that ruffles a grove of trees. In other words, its effect on Obama’s vote will probably be undetectable. That’s true for other flaplets as well, such as the Etch A Sketch “reset for the general election” comment from a Romney adviser.

That said, an effect can be real even if it is undetectable. And at the moment, Booker appears to have damaged the Obama campaign’s efforts to define Mr. Romney in the early weeks of the general-election race. Plus, he’s done so at a time when polls show the gap between the two contenders narrowing.

In defending private-equity firms, Booker has made it harder for the Obama team to assert that Romney’s Bain record is fair game. Worse, he’s also made it easier for Romney to frame the Bain attacks as an attack on free enterprise, instead of Bain’s specific record.

Obama on Monday insisted that he’s not going after venture capitalism in general, but Romney’s stewardship of Bain. Romney has made his business experience the centerpiece of his electoral argument to the American people, said Obama, and it’s fair to look at that experience in detail.

“When you’re president, as opposed to the head of a private-equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot,” Obama said in Chicago at a NATO press conference.

But Romney is responding as if Obama is putting capitalism itself in the dock, and he’s using Booker’s comments to help make his case.

“President Obama confirmed today that he will continue his attacks on the free enterprise system, which Mayor Booker and other leading Democrats have spoken out against,” said Romney in a statement Monday.

At issue here is the Obama campaign’s effort to define Romney before Romney has a chance to define himself. Reelection races are generally about the incumbent’s performance, and given the weak economy, Obama would be better off if his opponent’s record can somehow be dragged into the electoral conversation.

Right now, Obama and Romney are tied on probably the preeminent question of the election: who is better to handle the economy. That’s the finding of one new major poll, anyway. The Washington Post/ABC News survey finds voters split, 47 percent to 47 percent, over which of the November contenders can best handle economic issues.

Overall, Obama maintains a narrow 49 to 46 percent edge, according to the Post/ABC poll.

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