Tanzina Vega: On Saturday, President Trump is expected to announce his nomination to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and while rushing through a Supreme Court confirmation, just weeks ahead of a presidential election is a very divisive move, it appears that Senate Republicans have the votes necessary to confirm the president's pick. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine are the only Republican Senators who have come out against confirming a new justice prior to the election, and that leaves Senate Democrats without many options in the weeks ahead.
To get a better sense of how those senators on the left are thinking about a fight to replace Justice Ginsburg, I got Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey on the line. Senator Booker is also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Senator Cory Booker: I think that we need to all speak with a voice. Those of us who believe that there was something deeply wrong with them proceeding. When Merrick Garland was proposed by Barack Obama with about 260 plus days left before an election, Republicans made a passioned argument, citing precedent, the moral issues of letting the electorate decide and really set a rule. Here we are, some four years later, and they're contradicting not just what they said then, but many of them spoke to this issue, including Lindsay Graham, spoke to this issue just months ago, and said that, "If a vacancy opened up in an election year, that we should not move forward."
Again, this is something that they look like they're going to do everything they can to move forward on, but I don't think we should stop in calling out the hypocrisy of this. Given the last wishes of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who I don't think she knew the outcome of the election, but I think she must've been thinking about the very legitimacy of the court, not to have it so undermined by what seems like a raw political power grab. At a time that many of our institutions are losing their legitimacy because of politics, whether it's what Donald Trump has done with the CDC, the post office, the very presidency itself, to allow the Supreme Court to further lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the American public is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
I'm not sure how this is going to proceed exactly. I think that Mitch McConnell has extraordinary power to push this through, but I will not be silent in what I think is a damage, not just to the legitimacy of the institution of the Supreme Court but to major issues like a healthcare case for the Affordable Care Act that is racing to the Supreme Court now. This is going to affect American's lives and their ability to access healthcare in deep ways. I just really believe this is a time that we should see the restraint of power as opposed to what we're seeing right now.
Tanzina: Senator Booker, historically, at least over the past couple of decades, conservatives and Republicans have made the Supreme Court a key issue. They have vetted nominees with the Federalist Society. They have made this a key part of galvanizing their base. Democrats, on the other hand, have not been as aggressive with making the Supreme Court an issue at the polls in terms of galvanizing their base. Has that inaction or lack of aggressiveness, if you will, led us to where we are today? What can the Democrats do better?
Senator Booker: I think that a lot of people on various issues are seeing just how powerful the Supreme Court is in affecting their daily lives, whether it is the recent decisions on the ability for labor to organize, we have seen this Supreme Court begin to undermine unions, whether it's decisions on voting rights, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, undermining people's decisions, ability to access the polls, whether it's even the freedom and equality of LGBTQ Americans, on how narrow majorities were able to secure basic fundamental rights, but there are still rights and freedoms at stake. There's so much in the balance.
As I said before, perhaps the most immediate one is that all the Americans with preexisting conditions or the millions who have benefited from Medicaid expansion and more. The millions of Americans who have seen a benefit of the Affordable Care Act now know that a president who has pledged to tear down the Affordable Care Act, this will be before a new Supreme Court.
I think this is animating people, where people are realizing a lot of their fundamental rights, economic security, and equality are at stake here. I think it's going to be a motivating issue in this election. I will remind people that there is nothing that the Republicans can do in the waning days, I hope, of the Trump administration that cannot be corrected if we control the White House again with Joe Biden, and if Democrats get the majority in the United States Senate, we have a lot of options then about how to balance the scales of justice and to undo a lot of the damage that this administration has done.
Tanzina: Senator, some of that correcting, if you will, at least one option in correcting has been to pack the court. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, appears to be against the idea of expanding the Supreme Court, but there were other Democrats like Senator Ed Markey who have explicitly called for packing the court to balance its ideological tilt, specifically, especially if the Ginsburg seat is replaced. Where do you come down on that solution, Senator?
Senator Booker: I am going to be a very loud voice in reminding people that this debate is mute. It's mute if we do not win back the Senate and the White House. As opposed to using my energy to engage in hypothetical debates, why don't we engage in winning first, and then, have that conversation have a national conversation not just about that but the filibuster, everything?
Let's have that debate after an election because if we fail to get the majority of the Senate, and that is right on a razor's edge right now, if we fail to get the majority, Mitch McConnell is still in power, and we have seen the power he can wield in the Senate under Democratic president and under a Republican president. As opposed to wasting our energy over hypothetical debates, let's win first, and then, have a constructive conversation about how to make our democracy more democratic.
Tanzina: Speaking of some of those Senate races we are seeing right now, following the death of Justice Ginsburg, a significant amount of money is coming into some of these candidates right now. Are you optimistic, Senator Booker, that the Senate will in fact be flipped again towards the Democrats?
Senator Booker: I was taught by some great folks in the Central Ward of Newark, New Jersey that optimism, sunshiny view, is not what we need. What we need is work. What we need his struggle. I'm not leaving anything to chance. Many people were optimistic about Secretary Clinton's victory four years ago. This is a time to get to work. There's a lot of fear, but people need to turn their fear into fight, their agonizing into organizing, and their worry and to work. That's what this moment calls for.
I know, as my tenant president, when I used to live in some high-rise projects, Brick Towers, she taught me that hope is the active conviction that despair will not have the last word. Right now, the moment calls for investing your time, your energy, and resources into this election. If you want to take back the Senate, don't talk about it, be about it, and contribute, help, organize, send a contribution to some of those important Senate races that are in the balance right now.
Tanzina: Senator, you mentioned living in public housing. I, too, spent the first 20 some odd years of my life in public housing in New York City. I'm very familiar with some of the issues that come up in poor communities of color, particularly, when they're Black and brown, and one of those is police reform. Since the killing of George Floyd and the killing of Breonna Taylor, you have also called for significant reforms to police departments. There've been even broader calls to "defund police departments". Senator, where do you stand on some of those reforms, and is defunding the police the solution?
Senator Booker: First and foremost, I, with Kamala Harris and the Senate, authored a piece of legislation, in partnership with Congressional Black Caucus members, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Nadler in the House, to do massive reforms. Now, I call them massive reforms but they are wildly popular with Democrats and Republicans. In fact, many of the reforms in our legislation were adopted and passed from Iowa to Colorado by Republican legislatures. Let's just start with the basics. In the United States of America, there should not be chokeholds. In the United States of America, there should not be, in these drug cases, no-knock warrants that led to the death of Breonna Taylor.
In the United States of America, our public institutions should be far more accountable. Policing should be far more transparent, and police departments should have to report out their data on the kind of stops they make and are they racially-biased, on their uses of force. In the United States of America, if a police officer does something that is criminal, they should be held accountable. We should get rid of qualified immunity and make the standard for the use of force, one that is more reasonable, not as high that it's very hard to get a federal conviction against a police officer who has done something horribly wrong.
What I'm pushing right now and I think that will pass if it's not for Mitch McConnell who-- I'm not using any pejorative here. He calls himself the grim reaper as he has killed bipartisan bill after bipartisan bill. If we want to get the beginnings of real police reform done, Mitch McConnell cannot be there, or else, it will not happen, it will not pass. Now, as a guy who actually has spent the last 20 plus years working in a majority Black city, working in a city that has struggled since the riots of the '60s that started with issues of police brutality, that were written about in reports from the Kerner report, to even when the justice department came to Newark and showed the biases in our stops, I know there has to be major investments in our country in the things that reduce the need for police in the first place.
The fact that we are a nation that treats mental health and addiction, not with healthcare and treatment but with prison and jail, shows how backwards we are, that we would rather spend much more money on the backend of over a problem than investing in human flourishing and human well-being. Even police and law enforcement agencies that I dealt with, including the FBI, in my first meeting with them, when I asked them how do we solve the problems, and we were talking about gang violence, they looked at me and very honestly, the head of the FBI in the State of New Jersey said, "We don't solve these problems."
In other words, he knew that they just dealt with the symptoms of the failures of our society to invest in our children, to invest in child well-being, to invest in education and healthcare. We are a society that spends more on locking up its own people than any other country in the nation. The land of the free is the mass incarceration capital of the globe. It is absolutely morally, abjectly bankrupt what we do as a society through law enforcement. It is time that this country begins to prioritize investing in human well-being and human flourishing, where for our investments in those things, we will reap a massive return, not just in economic terms, our economy would thrive, but really in what we are a nation that says we're dedicated to, which is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Tanzina: Senator, on this show, when I took over as host of the show, I basically isolated three gaps in American society that I thought would essentially root this show. One of them is the truth gap, another one is the empathy gap, and the third is the racial wealth gap. Part of closing that gap, as you mentioned, the economics of our communities is a big part of where we would begin to see some of the changes that you're describing.
As Senator in 2018, you introduced legislation that would create so-called baby bonds, which are interest bearing funds for every newborn in the country. Your proposal hasn't been taken up for a vote, but Governor Phil Murphy seems to support a similar plan. Senator, why are baby bonds an important part in your estimation of addressing the racial wealth gap?
Senator Booker: It is clear in this country that we have, as you've reported, a massive wealth gap. For every dollar that the average white family has, the average Black family has about 10¢. For every dollar that the average white family has, the average Latino family has about 12¢. This is something that hurts our overall economy. That racial wealth gap is real, and it undermines the success of our society.
I believe that we already use our tax code to help wealthy people get more wealth. These tax expenditures are upwards of $650 billion a year. I support some of these things like the mortgage interest deduction, which helps people. It's overwhelmingly used by people who make $125,000 or more, and it is a tax expenditure. It's time that we use our tax code to help people without wealth gain wealth because paychecks helps you get by, wealth helps you get ahead and can be generational.
Our plan is very simple. If every child born in America, Black or white, regardless of background, gets a $1,000 savings account, social scientists show that that alone will actually increase the numbers of that kid's chance of going to college threefold just knowing they have an account like that. Then, every year, based upon their family's income, nothing to do with race but just on their family's income, like the earned income tax credit, they will get anywhere between zero and $2000 placed in their account.
Because of compounding interest, the lowest-income children, in other words, we're a nation with one out of every six of our children born in and living in poverty, those kids would have upwards of $50,000 by the time they're 18. That money then with the baby bonds proposal could be used to invest in wealth-producing investments, college education, buying a home, starting a business.
Now, Columbia University and others have looked at it. It would actually have the effect of closing the racial wealth gap for those young people starting out, a new generation of Americans starting out with a racial wealth gap closed. Whether you are, and I've talked to Joseph Manchin about this in West Virginia, a poor white family living in Appalachia or a family in the Central Ward of Newark where I live, those children would start out with wealth and the ability to invest in things that ultimately have allowed other families to pass things down through generations, and ultimately, actually, would've inherited the benefit of society as a whole by creating more wealth in our society.
These are the kinds of proposals that we don't just need, I think there is a moral urgency to do something like this. You mentioned in your trifecta of things that you wanted to focus on in the show, I believe the most important of those three is addressing the poverty of empathy in this country. We are a nation that is an outlier in terms of other wealthy nations on the planet, in terms of what we do for children.
We are an outlier. The only industrial nation that doesn't have paid family leave. The only industrial nation that doesn't have universal prenatal care. The industrial nation that leads in infant mortality, that leads in maternal mortality, leads in low birth weight babies, that doesn't have a universal preschool. All of these things that we deny children what they need to flourish, what every economist who does the studies have shown investments in these things could produce a greater return.
Why? Is it because we don't love our children? No, we do, but we do not understand the struggles of a good number of American children. That poverty of empathy, if we can ignite that most basic human instinct to care for each other, our policies will, and hopefully sooner than later, start to reflect the love that we have in this nation. Right now, they don't. Right now, they're Byzantine. We do things in this country, to our children, that other nations actually call torture, like putting children in solitary confinement in prison for months, even years, who haven't even been convicted of anything yet because they can't get out because they can't afford bail.
These are the kinds of things that we do poisoning our children, and when I say that, I mean that very literally. There are over 3,000 jurisdictions in America where children have more than twice the blood lead levels of Flint, Michigan because we haven't prioritized the infrastructure dollars necessary to get rid of all the lead service lines in our country, which is actually not that expensive of an endeavor. We have to, in this country, begin to prioritize children and low-income children, especially. That is a test of our love for one another, and right now, we are failing that test.
Tanzina: Senator, before we go I have to ask, given the landscape that you just painted of this country, the global pandemic, the increasing wealth gap, you mentioned a lot of things that we need to do to get back on track and two of your colleagues, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, are hoping to win the presidency and the vice presidency, respectively. Senator, they're not as visible out on the campaign trail as President Trump is. How is it that they can reconnect with voters looking for solutions to some of the issues that you just outlined?
Senator Booker: I'm blessed in a way that I have to pinch myself every day to be a United States Senator. As my mom has told me all the time, don't forget what it took for me to become the fourth elected African American Senator in the history of our nation. I am blessed to have relationships with people like Kamala Harris who is now, not just a colleague, she's really like a friend and a sister, and to have run for president and got a deeper relationship with Joe Biden. Their campaigns are staying focused on these issues. I know people believe this pandemic is, in many ways, keeping camp candidates off the campaign trail.
I just keep returning to the simple truth of this moment we're in, which is, this election is not a referendum on any one person or one office. It is a referendum on who we are as a nation and who we are going to be to each other. This is a moral moment in America. It's not about left or right. It's, will we go forward or will we languish where we are right now, which is really in the valley of the shadow of death.
My hope is that Americans will take it upon themselves to learn more about the candidates, to learn more about their vision. If they do believe that this is the most important election of our lifetime, that we will all begin to act like it. This is not a moment where we're called to do freedom rides knowing that our buses will be bombed or do marches like John Lewis knowing that we'll get beaten and have to bleed the earth red for freedom and justice. No, this is a moment where we just have to participate and engage in an election that will determine everything from the healthcare we have and the cost of our prescription drugs to whether we continue to be a nation of mass incarceration. This is what's at hand.
This is a time, if ever in our lives, we should be pouring our time, our energy, and even our money into making sure that the right outcome happens in this election because this is not their test, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, this is our test. Dear God, for the sake of not just our nation but with climate change, for the sake of humanity, I hope that America passes this test.
Tanzina: Senator Cory Booker is the junior senator from New Jersey and who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Booker, thanks for joining me.
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