The 2016 presidential election is typically depicted as the central fissure in the “Bernie Bros” narrative. A big problem with the battle on the left is that a lot of folks can’t see that this isn’t confined to Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton. It’s about true liberalism versus Bill Clinton’s conservative policy legacy that still dominates the upper echelon of the Democratic Party today. That same upper echelon who oversaw a party that lost over 1,000 seats in both the federal government and in statehouses across the country while it held the White House from 2008 to 2016. Leadership in the Democratic Party has largely been an oxymoron, and it produces outcomes like Bob Menendez—an utterly forgettable and replaceable senator from New Jersey, one of the most reliable Democratic states.
Bob Menendez will most likely win this race. I hope he does. New Jersey has not elected a Republican to Congress since the 1970s (two have been appointed), and that fact alone ensures that it may not matter who is running on the Democratic senate ticket, but the Democrats sure seem like they want to test that theory. If you’re not familiar with Bob Menendez’s corruption scandal from 2015, here’s a quick tidbit from CNN to get you caught up:
Menendez faced charges of conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud related to allegedly abusing the power of his office that could carry decades in prison. Prosecutors say the senator accepted more than $600,000 in political contributions, a luxurious hotel suite at the Park Hyatt in Paris, and free rides on a private jet from a wealthy ophthalmologist, Dr. Salomon Melgen, in exchange for political favors.
Both men deny all charges.
Defense lawyers argued that Menendez and Melgen were longtime friends with no corrupt intent to commit a federal crime, and after over two months of testimony, prosecutors never produced a smoking gun in the form of a document, email or incriminating phone call outlining an illicit agreement between the two men.
One compelling circumstantial example from his federal trial is how Menendez’s “longtime friend” was caught running a massive Medicare scam, and Menendez tried to get his friend reimbursed for performing unnecessary medical procedures. Those “gifts” happened, the only question around the case is why they happened. Menendez was ultimately acquitted by a hung jury, and the Democratic leadership could have easily forced him to not run for re-election. However, not only did they not do that, but they explicitly endorsed him over other progressive challengers. Now, instead of running away with this election for New Jersey’s senate seat with literally anyone else, Menendez’s baggage is beginning to weigh the longtime Democratic Senator down against his Republican challenger.
The Democrats deserve to lose this seat. I hope they don’t, and this is just one poll that looks like an outlier when compared to RealClearPolitics’ 8.9% average in favor of Menendez, but this is an unmitigated disaster. Even if he wins, the Democrats lose by being stuck to him. Plus, this new poll ensures that the party is going to spend additional money in a state where they could run a can of soup for senate and still win by close to double digits. Endorsements of Menendez from mainstream Democrats like Cory Booker will help the Republican Party’s attacks on supposed (and non-supposed) Democrat corruption stick in the minds of voters, and this is the central problem behind backing someone with convincing circumstantial evidence suggesting he’s a crook. Unless the politician brings something else to the table that provides serious value, it’s just not worth the risk to run them in this Trumpian environment.
In order to credibly talk about the rampant corruption that IS policy in the Republican Party, the Democrats need to clean out their own house first. This isn’t the only issue where we see a struggle amongst Democratic elite to reckon with their side’s own failures. Many Democrats are still mad at Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, because she was the first to call for Al Franken to resign…quickly followed by Sens. Claire McCaskill, Maggie Hassan, Mazie Hirono, Patty Murray, and Kamala Harris. Senator Bob Casey joined them shortly thereafter, yet Gillibrand receives the entire blame from establishment-types and their sympathizers for a “politically-motivated attack” that no one can never quite articulate*.
*To quickly address this insane theory that Gillibrand pushed Franken out, so she would have one less challenger for president in 2020: there are going to be a billion people running for the Democratic ticket in 2020. What does knocking one guy out do for her? If you think that Al Franken is the 800-pound gorilla in an immensely crowded field, then please change the channel on your TV from something other than 1980s episodes of SNL.
A lot of good has happened at the grassroots level of the Democratic Party since 2016. Many existing organizations have begun to be heard by the national infrastructure, and new people are entering the party at the local level. The ascendance of the Democratic Socialists of America is an unequivocally good thing—as it reminds everyone that the Democrats are the party of the 1960s Great Society and 1930s New Deal—not 1990s Clintonian neoliberalism that has proven itself to be corrupt and servile to the economic interests of billionaire oligarchs who historically oppose liberal policy. Menendez’s presence simply makes it more difficult for the Democrats to become the party they aim to be, as Alex Pareene wrote in Splinter earlier this year when Menendez won the New Jersey Democratic primary:
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.
Bob Menendez will likely win, and that is clearly a better outcome than him losing, but this is yet another instance that we can point to where the Democrats do not get it—or they do and they just don’t care about self-inflicted wounds so long as they and their people get taken care of. The old guard lost a thousand seats and then punctuated that misery by getting dunked on by Donald freaking Trump. Their strategy of courting upper middle class Republican voters instead of non-voters has proven to not work beyond one of the greatest campaigners this country has ever seen. The teacher’s strikes in deep red states like West Virginia and Oklahoma are a reminder that if the Democrats want to siphon voters off the GOP, being pro-labor and not pro-capital is the way to go.
It’s time for the Democrats to turn a new leaf and shift left—the only question is how far left should we go. With Bob Menendez’s corruption scandals hanging over everything he does, it makes the job more difficult for other Democrats to separate themselves from the inevitable Republican corruption attacks on the entire party. The leadership provided by Democratic women like Kirsten Gillibrand, Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris during the Al Franken saga is a positive indicator of where some of the party is headed, but the Democrats could have used something similar with the Menendez ordeal from “leaders” like Chuck Schumer. The fact that they didn’t tells you all you need to know about who the future of the Democratic Party should belong to.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.