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Democrats Must Call on Menendez to Resign
Standing by their colleague out of loyalty is a political disaster
On Friday, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, his wife, and three others were indicted on three counts of bribery and wielding improper influence. According to the New York Times:
The three-count federal indictment, which also charges the senator’s wife and three New Jersey businessmen, accuses him of using his official position in a wide range of corrupt schemes. In one, he sought to secretly provide Egypt with sensitive U.S. government information, prosecutors said. In two others, he aimed to influence criminal investigations of two New Jersey businessmen, one of whom was a longtime fund-raiser for Mr. Menendez … In exchange for all those actions, the indictment said, the senator and his wife, Nadine Menendez, accepted cash, gold, payments toward a home mortgage, a luxury vehicle and other valuable things.
It’s like something out of a poorly written episode of The Sopranos.
This is not the first scandal for Menendez. Earlier this decade, the New Jersey Democrat was charged with crimes including conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud. He was eventually acquitted at trial. He is generally viewed as one of the sketchiest people in politics.
Thus far, Democrats have responded as they did the last time Menendez was indicted for corruption charges — with uncomfortable silence. According to Senate Democratic Caucus rules, Menendez will be forced to vacate the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee, but he remains in the Senate and on the Committee.
Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and Menendez has a right to due process within the legal system. But he does not have a right to serve in the United States Senate with the full support of the Democratic Party.
Menendez has been an ethical stain on the Democratic Party for years. A jury will again decide if Menendez is a criminal. The stakes are too high to stand by a clearly corrupt colleague out of loyalty and personal friendship. Calling on Menendez to resign is the right thing to do, and also politically necessary.
Menendez needs to go, and senior Democrats should follow the lead of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and show him the door.
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Menendez Puts the Senate at Risk
Menendez is up for reelection in 2024. His presence on the ballot while undergoing a criminal trial for corruption makes a bad situation exponentially worse for his party. Prior to Friday’s news, the Cook Political Report rated the New Jersey Senate race as “Solid Democrat.” Biden won the state by 16 points in 2020. This race should be an investment-free layup from a national party that has to wage expensive hard hard-fought races in tough states to protect our slim majority. Could Menendez win a race while under indictment? Maybe. He has the survival skills of a cockroach. In 2021, Governor Phil Murphy barely beat an unknown, unfunded Republican challenger. To keep the seat, Democrats must spend money. New Jersey doesn’t have its own television market. Its residents watch TV from stations based in New York City and Philadelphia — two of the most expensive markets in the country to run campaign ads. If Menendez were to resign, Governor Murphy would appoint his replacement. Whoever is appointed will almost certainly be elected to a full term with ease next November.
Menendez puts all the other Senators running for reelection in an impossible situation. They will be peppered with questions about whether they support their indicted colleague. Even more damaging, Menendez makes it harder to attack other Republican candidates for their undying support of Trump despite all of his crimes and corruption.
His Indictment Blurs the 2024 Message
This is probably too obvious to even mention, but an indicted Democratic Senator serving in the United States Senate with the tacit support of the President and his Democratic colleagues complicates our message for 2024.
Donald Trump’s 91 indictments and rampant corruption should be at the center of the 2024 message. Of course, Joe Biden is running against Trump, not Menendez. But we can see how the Republicans and the press will use Menendez as an intellectually lazy rejoinder to Democratic criticisms of Trump.
More concerning to me is that Democrats standing with Menendez will exacerbate the most concerning trend heading into the next election — a growing sense among voters that both parties are corrupt. Pew Research recently conducted a study of Americans on our political institutions, and the results were eye-opening. According to the poll, 28% of Americans disapprove of both parties — the highest share in more than three decades. The researchers asked respondents to describe the state of politics in their own words, only 2% used positive terms while 79% used negative terminology. One of the most commonly used words was “corrupt.”
If Democrats stand with Menendez, we are validating the pre-conceived cynicism of a lot of voters. In an election where victory depends on high turnout — particularly among young voters — that could be a fatal error.
This is undoubtedly an uncomfortable choice for Democrats. They have long-term relationships with Menendez. In an institution that is way too white, pushing out one of its most senior members of color is unfortunate and unpleasant.
However, with democracy on the line and no margin of error, Democrats simply cannot afford to take a risk on Bob Menendez.