U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, left, stands with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, center, and Sen. Cory Booker prior to an event kicking off Menendez’s campaign for re-election at Union City High School, Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Union City, N.J.
Photo: Julio Cortez (AP)

Congrats to the Democratic Party for ceding the moral authority to make corruption a campaign issue, all to protect one mediocre incumbent from a deep blue state. Senator Robert Menendez, who not along ago was a hung jury away from a federal corruption conviction, won his primary election Tuesday, after the New Jersey Democratic machine, with an assist from national Democratic Party leaders, cleared the field for him.

Despite his massive fundraising advantage, despite the fact that his nominal opponent was a completely unknown figure, despite endorsements from popular and powerful Democratic figures like Sen. Cory Booker, Menendez barely cracked 60 percent of the vote. A large number of committed Democrats showed up to an uncompetitive midterm primary election to vote for an unfamiliar name with no shot of winning simply because that name was not Bob Menendez.

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Here’s what tarnished the Menendez name: He received gifts and campaign donations from a wealthy supporter and, in exchange, did favors for that supporter. That is not really in dispute. Whether or not he’s guilty of criminal activity is still an open question, thanks to that jury, but the criminality of his actions is beside the point. He is clearly and plainly corrupt. He was purchased. A wealthy eye doctor running a massive Medicare scam sent Senator Menendez on lavish vacations and bought him a Rolex and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign and to super PACs supporting him. Senator Menendez did favors for him in return, including trying to help him get reimbursed by Medicare and Medicaid for performing unnecessary medical procedures on senior citizens.

This has all been extensively reported and well-known for ages, and for ages the unofficial reason Democrats couldn’t call on Menendez to step aside was that New Jersey had a Republican governor, and if Menendez resigned or was forced out, a Republican would take his place in the U.S. Senate. This year, with the election of Phil Murphy, New Jersey got a Democratic governor. The calls for his resignation did not come. Phil Murphy endorsed Menendez.

Murphy was not alone. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made it clear that, as far as Democratic Party leadership was concerned, Menendez was protected once he reinstated him as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee in February. (From that committee, as Glenn Greenwald wrote at The Intercept, Menendez has been, reliably, one of the most hawkish and right-wing Democrats in the Senate, especially on anything relating to Iran and Israel.)

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Endorsing Menendez, tacitly or openly, is not just an endorsement of one corrupt politician. It is a voluntary abdication of the right to make anti-corruption arguments as a party. There is no unfortunate but understandable political expediency involved, as there was when Chris Christie would have been in charge of replacing Menendez. Menendez is among the most replaceable politicians in the party. A houseplant running on the Democratic Party line in November would be overwhelmingly likely to win the election, especially if it had never been involved in a well-publicized corruption trial. New York Rangers legend Mark Messier, campaigning on a platform of “remember when I knocked the Devils out of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals with my legendary Game Six hat trick,” would probably win a U.S. Senate race in New Jersey on the Democratic ticket. There was no need to stick with Menendez; to do so merely sends the message that what he did doesn’t matter to you and isn’t important.

And honestly there is very little evidence that today’s Democrats think corruption is important. If they did, prominent Democrats might feel a little more squeamish about endorsing Andrew Cuomo, who famously interfered with and then shut down his own anti-corruption panel when it got to close to his own interests and allies, and whose longtime top aide and campaign manager was convicted on corruption charges for work he (illegally) did out of the governor’s office. I think in their short-sightedness, and eagerness to protect and reward loyal party men like Cuomo and Menendez, these other Democrats don’t really understand what they’re giving up in exchange.

Being the “good government” party—the pro-transparency, anti-corruption party—has been a core part of the Democratic Party brand since Watergate swept an entire generation of new Democrats into office. This is in part why a concurrent conservative strategy, for decades, has been to work very hard to manufacture scandal around Democrats—not simply to deflect from their own scandals or harm their political opponents, but to muddy the waters to the extent that a plurality of voters (and eventually even journalists) think “everyone” is equally rotten, which has the perverse effect of making it so that there are rarely electoral (let alone legal) consequences to actual Republican scandals. Democrats do not do themselves any favors when they validate that strategy by being actually corrupt. 

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The Trump administration is outrageously and cartoonishly corrupt, and it is vitally important for the future of the country and the world that Republicans be roundly and decisively defeated in every possible forthcoming election. That is precisely why creeps like Menendez should be jettisoned—their mere presence makes it that much harder for anyone to, eventually, hold the creeps of the Trump administration responsible for any of this. I know it is not very fair, especially if you want to be a little bit corrupt, or you feel you owe loyalty to someone who is a little bit corrupt, but you actually do have to hold yourself to a higher ethical standard than conservatives hold themselves, if you want to defeat them.

Democrats have, belatedly and tentatively, tried to make corruption a campaign issue. They have attempted to make the case that Trump and his Republican allies “are cravenly beholden to big money interest and the American people are paying the price,” as Nancy Pelosi said last month. The job would be easier if they hadn’t just allowed a man who was cravenly beholden to one big money donor—a donor whose malfeasance Americans very much paid the price for—to remain a Democratic senator.