If you watch politics long enough you realize that the secret to not being forced to resign is simple: just don’t resign. Obvious? Sure, in a way. But for countless politicians it remains oddly elusive. It’s a sort of Zen Koan of political scandals only revealed in its fullness to those who have spent years or decades meditating on the carnival of political scandals.
I often regret when good politicians fail to grasp this. We now see a bad one — Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey — trying to make a go of it. As our proverb makes clear, if Menendez absolutely refuses to resign there’s literally no way to force him. But that may not be as big a deal as it seems. Forcing him to resign may not be necessary.
The simplest alternative is for another candidate to defeat him in a primary. It may not be as hard as it sounds.
Normally a primary would be a tall order. But I’m not sure that’s the case here. At the federal level, the Menendez dam is mostly holding. Sens. John Fetterman (D-PA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) have called on him to resign. But that’s it. Meanwhile, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has essentially said it’s Menendez’s call. Not bad when your new middle name is “Gold Bars”.
But it’s a very, very different story where it probably counts most: in New Jersey. As Abby Livingston notes at Puck it’s hard even for an incumbent to win a primary in New Jersey without the support of the Democratic county chairs. Ten of the 21 of them have already called on him to resign. And that’s just the start of it. David Wildstein’s New Jersey Globe is keeping a tally of which in-state politicians have called on Menendez to step down and it’s pretty shocking. (And yes, Wildstein’s the guy who was earlier at the center of the BridgeGate scandal.)
Let’s look at the list: Governor, Senate President, Assembly Speaker, State Dem Chair, aforesaid buttload of county chairs. Six of New Jersey’s 9 members of Congress have already called on Menendez to resign. Of the three who haven’t, one is his son, Rep. Rob Menendez. He hasn’t called on his dad to resign yet. But who knows?
(This list is so long it occurred to me that Senate colleagues may feel like they can take a pass on the awkward call for Menendez to resign because they think New Jersey pols will deal with him.)
Two things jump out about this list.
The first is that absolutely no one is scared of this guy. If he still inspires fear, dislike of the guy must have overwhelmed it. It’s hard to overstate the total and catastrophic loss of confidence and support this list represents. New Jersey has a pretty high tolerance for crooked pols. Local politicians get thrown in jail all the time. Indeed, in New Jersey you can be crooked and completely known to be crooked — Sharpe James comes to mind — and yet still very popular. No one seems to be afraid of Menendez — almost certainly because they see him as a political dead man walking. The length of the list calling on him to resign suggests no one likes him much either.
Every politician who calls on Menendez to resign has to be predicting that Menendez is toast. By calling on him to resign they become committed to that outcome. By refusing to leave after basically everyone in the state told him to he becomes an annoyance or worse. Where I’m going with this is that it’s pretty hard to win a high profile primary in New Jersey, even as an incumbent, if the whole state political apparatus is against you. And that’s where Menendez is at. The focus of a challenger’s campaign speaks for itself: Menendez is a crook. We can do better. He’s even too shady for our sleazy state political machine.
If New Jersey Democrats consolidate around a primary challenger Menendez, will simply become a de facto lame duck and what he decides or doesn’t won’t matter.