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The Politics of Bob
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The Politics of Bob

How much credit do Democrats deserve for turning against Menendez?

Sen. Bob Menendez and his wife Nadine Menendez depart a Manhattan courthouse after they were arraigned on federal bribery charges on September 27, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

There’s nothing easier than doing the right thing when doing the right thing is good for your bottom line.

It’s why partisan Republicans are forever eager to accuse anti-Trump conservatives of having ulterior motives. The truth is that if you lean right politically and are willing to say anything to please an audience, you’re more likely to make bank at Fox News or The Daily Wire or by running your own populist propaganda site than you are by doing guest shots on MSNBC. Being a Never Trumper will cost you more opportunities than it’ll earn you, take it from me.

But you can understand why partisans insist on believing otherwise. If anti-Trumpers are bought and paid for, their moral chastisements hold no force. They simply followed their bottom line and dressed it up as “doing the right thing.”

Why, if anything, they’re the most corrupt actors in the party.

Which brings us to Bob Menendez.

I won’t rehash the allegations in the federal indictment that was filed last week on the assumption that you’ve been following the story. If not, get caught up. I’ll whet your appetite with this sensational teaser: “When authorities searched the senator’s residence in June 2022 … they found gold bars and envelopes of cash hidden in clothing, closets and a safe.”

Gold bars. As outlandish as Trump’s scandals have been, even he’s managed to avoid accepting payoffs in cartoonish old-timey bullion.

The interesting thing politically about Menendez’s scandal isn’t the details, it’s the reaction of his party. Numerous Democrats from his home state of New Jersey quickly called on him to resign, including Gov. Phil Murphy, but Menendez’s colleagues in the Senate were silent—at first. As of early Monday afternoon, only John Fetterman had recommended that he hit the bricks.

But then things started moving.

That list isn’t complete: After I began writing this column, Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Patty Murray joined the parade. The two most famous Democrats in the House, Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have also called on Menendez to quit in recent days. The dam has broken. 

Democrats are doing the right thing. And in this case, the right thing happens to be very good for their political bottom line.

The party’s political bottom line is this: Democrats face a fantastically daunting Senate map next year and will need every available dollar to defend seats in red states like Montana and West Virginia. Indigo-blue New Jersey is supposed to be a gimme, especially with a longtime incumbent like Menendez on the ballot.

As of last week, it’s no longer a gimme. Menendez won reelection in 2018 by “just” 12 points, in fact, overcoming another federal indictment that was filed against him in 2015. (That case ended when prosecutors opted not to retry him following a mistrial.) Anyone tempted to break their arms patting Democrats on the back for trying to push him out now might ask themselves why they didn’t make the same effort eight years ago, when Republican Chris Christie was governor and poised to fill any vacancy.

But they didn’t, and now the party is staring down the barrel of Menendez stubbornly staying in the race, prevailing in a primary, then going down in flames in the general election against a generic Republican. Imagine Democrats moving heaven and earth to reelect people like Joe Manchin and Jon Tester and losing the Senate majority anyway because of … New Jersey.

They’re already imagining it. Calling Menendez’s refusal to resign “selfish,” Fetterman was candid about the party’s motivations in turning on him: “It’s not about him, it’s about control of that seat and the Senate and we have our colleagues in tough hard races right now to maintain that majority.” The sooner Bullion Bob can be browbeaten into resigning, the sooner Gov. Murphy can appoint a more electable generic Democrat to replace him in the Senate and on the ballot next year.

Wanting him out is a bottom-line decision. But there’s more to the Democratic bottom line, locally and nationally.

Menendez’s scandal presents his party with a near-term nightmare locally. All 120 seats in New Jersey’s legislature will be on the ballot in November, which is why Murphy and other Democratic big shots across the state were so quick last week to call on the senator to resign. Given the 25-15 liberal majority in the Senate and 46-34 advantage in the House, even a small public backlash could tilt control of both chambers to the GOP. With voters getting ready to go to the polls, Menendez’s party is suddenly forced to try to cut loose an anchor that’s tied to their ankles before they all sink.

Nationally, for reasons you’re perhaps aware of, Democrats are planning to run next year on the message that there’s no place in public service for an accused criminal and his enablers. House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden has complicated that, by design: The GOP wants voters convinced next fall that there’s no non-corrupt option on the ballot. The Menendez indictment has now complicated it further

It would be, er, tricky for Democrats to treat the senator as fit for office unless and until he’s convicted while presuming certain other suspected felons to be guilty and unfit.

So there’s real upside and little downside for Menendez’s party in trying to push him out. Seeing so many prominent Democrats call for his resignation might even persuade New Jersey voters to defeat him in the upcoming Senate primary, solving the general election headache. (He’s already drawn one serious challenger this week, no doubt with support from party elders.) And if he wins the nomination anyway, Senate Dems will at least be able to point to their criticism of him as proof that they’re not hypocrites about electing alleged criminals. They’re consistent: Menendez shouldn’t be in the Senate, Trump shouldn’t be in the White House.

They’re doing the right thing, which happens to be the bottom-line thing.

Or is it vice versa?

If New Jersey were a Republican state with a Republican governor poised to appoint a Republican to Menendez’s seat if he resigned, the right thing and the bottom-line thing would no longer align. What would Democrats do in that case, bearing in mind Fetterman’s candor about the party’s motives here?

Maybe they’d push for his resignation anyway. They pushed for Andrew Cuomo’s when he was accused of sexual harassment and some pushed for Ralph Northam’s when he appeared in an old photo wearing blackface. But New York and Virginia are (or were!) safe-ish blue states, notably, so Democrats were risking little by calling for their exits. Their enthusiasm to dump Northam eventually cooled when his lieutenant governor was accused of sexual assault, Noah Rothman reminds us. And some Senate Dems came to regret having ushered Al Franken into retirement after he got caught in a sexual-misconduct scandal at the height of the #MeToo furor.

So maybe they wouldn’t be leaning on Menendez. Maybe they’d do what they did the last time he was indicted and back off.

We should be careful about crediting this or any political party with acting virtuously, especially when it’s benefiting from a grading curve relative to another party that seems to sneer at the very idea of virtue. There are still Democrats in Congress today who defended Bill Clinton 25 years ago, remember.

We should also bear in mind that the bribery allegations against Menendez are unusually lurid, making it hard for his colleagues to turn a blind eye even if they’d prefer to do so. Democrats might have chosen to downplay a complicated financial scheme involving slush funds and money laundering, etc., in the belief that voters wouldn’t be able to follow it and therefore wouldn’t form firm judgments. A scheme in which one of their own is caught hiding gold bars in his home doesn’t leave much room for finesse.

We should, lastly, consider that there’s something to be said morally for due process even for dubious shysters like Menendez. A federal indictment isn’t any ol’ accusation like the sort that a political opponent might level; the credibility of the Justice Department (or what’s left of it among the public) will lead most of us to assume that Menendez must be guilty of something. But “he must be guilty of something” is a poor standard to justify demanding that someone relinquish public office. Especially if that someone has beaten a federal rap once before.

If the argument is that Menendez, although presumed innocent, has lost the trust of the people due to the appearance of impropriety created by the indictment, I’m sure he’d say that the people themselves will soon have a chance to make their feelings on that subject known. Why not let them decide? Why endow the Justice Department, which soon might answer to Donald Trump, with the power to morally compel sitting senators to leave office by leveling a bare accusation?

In short, I agree with those who say Democrats are acting expediently more than morally in wanting Menendez out.

But that conclusion is less damning than it seems.

If Senate Democrats have taken the moral position on Menendez only because it happens to coincide with the expedient position, it’s nonetheless true that they’re free to do so because Democratic voters have given them political space to make that choice. John Fetterman, for instance, will pay no price in his next primary for having demanded that his Democratic colleague resign in disgrace while he’s under suspicion from the DOJ.

One can imagine a party in which voters don’t tolerate their leaders moving against an almost-certainly corrupt colleague, in which blind loyalty to a member of the tribe who’s been accused of something terrible is taken as the supreme virtue.

We don’t have to strain very hard to imagine a party like that, do we?

It’s not quite true that Republican voters would resist all attempts by GOP leaders to pressure a fellow Republican into resigning. If Mitt Romney were caught with gold bars in his home and shady connections to the Egyptian government, say, MAGA voters would be climbing over each other in clamoring for his resignation.

That’s because, more so than the Democrats, the GOP is two parties under one banner. The populist base doesn’t care what happens to traditional conservatives (especially ones like Romney who’ve antagonized them). If, say, Steve Daines got caught red-handed taking bribes and Mitch McConnell led a chorus of Republicans in calling for his resignation, the grassroots backlash would be muted. There’d be some grumbling purely on “whatever McConnell wants, I don’t want” grounds but nothing very formidable.

But if a populist Republican were caught red-handed, the same Senate Republican chorus would be accused of doing the left’s bidding by trying to push him out. When a populist is under siege, the party is expected to “fight” on his behalf. Regardless of the strength of the evidence against him.

There simply is no political space on the right for virtue in those circumstances. That’s why Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley continue to pass on opportunities to make an issue of Trump’s four indictments. Doing so wouldn’t be seen as virtuous. To the contrary.

Go figure, then, that the senators who have been the biggest sticklers about not prejudging Bob Menendez are MAGA-aligned Republicans, not Democrats.

“Whether Bob Menendez steps down is a decision for the voters of New Jersey. Clearly the guy’s been accused of some pretty crazy stuff … but we do have innocence until proven guilty here,” J.D. Vance told reporters when asked about the scandal. Ted Cruz agreed with him. Daines did too. When Kevin McCarthy was asked whether he thought Menendez should resign, he answered, “Yeah, very much so”—then backpedaled when asked whether George Santos, a key part of the slender House Republican majority, should resign as well. Actually, said McCarthy, I think they should both have their day in court.

The only Republican senator who thinks Menendez should go is—who else?—Romney, assuming that even “one ounce of what’s in the indictment is true.”

This must be the first bribery scandal in American history in which the other party is more skeptical of allegations against a politician than his own is.

But what choice do Senate Republicans have? Just as Democrats’ position on Trump’s indictments dictates their hard line against Menendez, Republicans’ position dictates a softer one. Cotton and Rubio can’t very well argue that a politician who’s under suspicion of a felony is unfit for office, can they?

I mean, they could. But it would be the end of their careers. That’s what it looks like when your voters won’t give you space to behave morally.

In fact, it’s worse than that.

Consider Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas and a notably sleazy Trump sycophant. Paxton was impeached by the Texas state House but acquitted recently by the state Senate. Trump put pressure on the upper chamber to find his lackey not guilty and Republican state senators obliged, knowing what it might mean for their next primaries if they didn’t. Not only will Paxton and those who acquitted him pay no political price with Republican voters for the acquittal, Paxton had the hubris to celebrate the verdict by threatening a primary challenge of his own against John Cornyn.

Republican voters haven’t just declined to provide moral space to their leaders to act virtuously, in other words. They’ve created an incentive system that’s closer to the opposite. 

Because GOP officials receive no grace from their voters to behave morally, they tend to fall back on legal formulations to justify behaving amorally. We saw that during Trump’s impeachment trials, when much ado was made on the right about whether he’d committed any statutory “high crimes or misdemeanors,” as if that mattered to a process like impeachment. The babbling about presumed innocence and due process for Menendez this week is of a piece with it. Menendez should and will receive due process, of course—in court. But that’s a separate matter from whether his presence in the Senate under such a dark cloud of suspicion is deleterious to public trust in the institution and in the integrity of the country’s leaders.

When your voters won’t let you condemn something that’s improper, you’re stuck having to defend it as technically legal. Bob Menendez, indicted by the same despised DOJ that twice indicted the right’s hero, is getting a taste of what that looks like this week from the GOP because he and Trump now share a common institutional enemy. Right, Charlie?

It can’t be long before MAGA media outlets begin insisting that “they” aren’t after Bob Menendez, they’re after you. Menendez is just in the way.

Who knows? If he plays his cards right, he might just land a pardon from President Trump.

Exasperated at right-wing complaints that Democrats are only looking out for their political bottom line in calling on Menendez to resign, my Dispatch colleague Andrew Egger offered a hearty “so what?” on Twitter. “Political incentives aligning with ethical norms is evidence of a system that works!” he wrote. “I feel like Republicans have been squashing their consciences about certain party leaders for so long they resent the fact that others might not have to.”

That’s my point exactly. For all its flaws, the Democratic Party is healthy enough that its leaders aren’t compelled for raw tribal reasons to take the unconscionable step of defending Menendez to the political death. They can choose a moral course, which is also the expedient course, and still survive a primary. Republican voters could do the same in their presidential primary, as there’s a course of action there, too, that’s both morally correct and politically advantageous in the general election. But, well, you’ve seen the polls.

One wonders: If the expedient thing is so easy to do, why aren’t Republican voters doing it?

The interesting question in all this is whether the reactions to Menendez are purely circumstantial or whether the culture of the two parties is changing more durably.

Maybe it’s circumstantial. Menendez isn’t beloved by the Democratic base, after all; rather the opposite, as he’s known as a hawk toward Iran. If gold bars had been found in the home of a progressive heartthrob like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, perhaps Senate Democrats would have thought twice before making aggressive demands for a resignation. The grassroots left is capable of primarying enemies of The Cause too, you know.

But it could be that something more meaningful is happening. A few days ago Jonathan Last speculated that Trump’s influence has made the GOP’s partisan culture less ethical and the Democrats’ partisan culture more ethical. Not wildly more, as the person of Bob Menendez demonstrates, but institutionally, in terms of the two parties’ respective commitments to defending the liberal order. “Trump placed Democrats on the side of (actual) law and order, so that their partisan interests (mostly) aligned with the rule of law,” he writes. “That experience has made them more beholden to the rule of law as a pre-existing value that their ‘side’ has a vested interest in maintaining.”

The parties tend to polarize around issues. Why wouldn’t standards of ethical behavior for public officials be another issue around which they might polarize? And as they do polarize, it would stand to reason that voters who care more about such behavior might begin to drift left while those who don’t start to drift right. As that self-sorting proceeds over time—say, from 2015 to 2023—we might end up with a “party of institutional trust” versus a “party of institutional paranoia.”

The party of institutional trust thinks having a senator under indictment is a problem. The party of institutional paranoia does not. Who woulda thunk it?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.