For a while, the Democratic senator from New Jersey was in deep trouble.

No, not Cory Booker. I’m talking about the other senator, Robert Menendez. 

Back in 2015, Menendez was indicted on charges of corruption and bribery for sharing a quid-pro-quo relationship with a wealthy Florida eye doctor by the name of Dr. Salomon Melgen. Beginning in 2006, Melgen flew Menendez on his private jets to luxury resorts around the world, free of charge, and made donations to Menendez’s legal defense and campaign funds. In return, Menendez allegedly acted as Melgen’s “personal senator,” providing services that ranged from the humdrum — pressuring the State Department to “intervene with the Dominican government to resolve [a business] dispute in Melgen’s favor” — to the delightfully sordid — helping three of Melgen’s foreign girlfriends obtain student or tourist visas to the U.S. 

Fortunately for Menendez, two Thursdays ago on Nov. 16, his corruption trial ended in a mistrial after the jury was unable to reach a verdict. It wasn’t an acquittal, but it was certainly better than the alternative. And although the Department of Justice may choose to retry the case, it’s not looking likely

But, I’m not going to relitigate all of this. Instead, I want to point out something that might easily go unnoticed now that the trial is over: the disappointing failure of Democrats to use the Menendez trial itself — not the result — as an opportunity to scorn corruption.

During the trial, Democratic politicians did their best to avoid any discussion of Menendez. Asked if he would support Menendez if he were convicted, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) ignored the question. Confronted with the same query, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) said, “I haven’t really been paying attention to the trial.” 

These eyebrow-raising answers — or complete lack thereof — weren’t entirely unexpected, given what had been at stake for Democrats. If Menendez had been convicted, he would’ve likely either resigned or been forcibly expelled by the Senate (which would’ve required at least 15 Democrats to vote with Republicans), in which case the current New Jersey governor would’ve appointed someone to replace him until the November 2018 elections rolled around.  

Wait, who’s our governor again? Chris Christie?

That’s right: for one last time, Governor Christie might’ve been called on to rise from the depths of his beach chair like a primordial sea monster with a 15% approval rating. If Menendez had left his Senate seat before Christie’s term expired on January 16, 2018, Christie would’ve appointed the Republican of his choice. Even worse, during the trial, he didn’t rule out the possibility of resigning the governorship and having his lieutenant appoint none other than himself as New Jersey’s newest senator — Senator Chris Christie. Hold your loved ones close, and your Oreos even closer.    

So yes, Democrats had a lot to fear, and thus for good reason, kept their mouths shut. New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972. And even if Christie’s interim appointee ended up holding the seat for less than a year, that brief window of time could’ve been all Republicans needed to push through major legislation on issues like tax reform, or even healthcare (because why beat a dead horse when you can take away its health insurance?). Had they lost Menendez before January 16, Democrats would’ve lost big.  

We may never know for sure how Democrats would’ve responded to a Menendez conviction. But that didn’t prevent pundits from speculating during the trial. Sadly, almost all of the suggested outcomes — Democrats encouraging Menendez not to resign or delaying his expulsion vote — involved Democrats putting their integrity on hold. Most tellingly, Vox’s Andrew Prokop suggested that they might “make a public case that an expulsion vote wouldn’t really be about Menendez and corruption — it would be about preventing Republicans from getting the final vote to repeal Obamacare.”

All of this amounted to a classic “the ends justify the means” argument: allowing a corrupt senator to remain in office would’ve been morally acceptable if it meant blocking the Republican agenda at every turn. To a certain extent, I get that. Under this current administration, so much hangs in balance. And with our president’s vices on full display, Democrats might’ve felt that they too deserved the chance to indulge in underhanded politicking. 

But if there was ever a time for Democrats to take a hardline stance against corruption, it’s now. It’s not just that Washington, D.C. feels more corrupt than ever before, what with members of Congress being investigated for insider trading and Cabinet secretaries using taxpayer money to pay for private jets. It’s also that Democrats have spent so much of the past several months slamming this administration for its perpetual “swampiness.” For them to have sat and shrugged their shoulders while one of their own stood trial for bribery — now that’s pure hypocrisy.

The Democrats chickened out. It should’ve been easy for them to issue a simple if-then statement: if Menendez is found guilty of corruption, then we think he should resign. But they didn’t, because that would’ve been a lie. Their unspoken message was more along the lines of: if Menendez is found guilty, then we need him to hold tight until January 16. 

But they must realize that being “principled” doesn’t mean that they get to choose where their principles guide them, even if it’s to politically inconvenient destinations. They failed this test. Let’s hope they don’t fail the next one — I doubt the Democrats’ moral grade can stand another hit. 

Lou Chen is a music major from San Bernardino, Calif. He can be reached at lychen@princeton.edu.

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