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Senator Menendez indicted: Why no one in Congress is cheering

Democrats could rally behind a colleague under fire, but a Democratic administration indicted him. Republicans could rejoice that a high-ranking Democrat is in trouble, but he's also a key critic of White House policy on Iran and Cuba.

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    US Sen. Bob Menendez (D) of New Jersey speaks during a news conference, Wednesday, in Newark, N.J. Senator Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was indicted on corruption charges, accused of using his office to improperly benefit an eye doctor and political donor.
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The corruption indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey presents dilemmas for his colleagues.

Consider the Democrats. Like all politicians, they instinctively rally behind a party colleague who comes under fire. If the indictment had occurred under a Republican administration, they would undoubtedly be complaining about partisan witch-hunting and politically motivated prosecution. But since their party controls the Justice Department, those talking points are not available to them. 

They also have to think about the case’s potential outcome. Suppose they give him their unqualified support. If a high-profile trial ends in a conviction, their opponents will run television ads morphing their faces into his. That prospect must give them pause: In Washington, self-preservation always trumps friendship.

But suppose they shun him, and then he beats the rap. In that case, they will have made an enemy who will probably be around for a very long time. 

A couple of rules of thumb can guide them through this difficult situation. 

First, when substance is tricky, talk process. Emphasize due process, the presumption of innocence, and equality before the law.

Second, change the subject. When reporters ask about the indictment, talk about his list of legislative accomplishments and long record of service to New Jersey.

For Republicans, the dilemma is different. On the one hand, Menendez is a high-ranking member of the other party, so his indictment offers an opportunity to allege a Democratic culture of corruption. On the other hand, he has broken ranks with the Obama administration on Iran and Cuba, thus giving the GOP some bipartisan cover. (“Even the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee says that Obama is wrong.”) In other words, Republicans find him handy to have around.

In their case, I would recommend the “furrowed brow” approach. Instead of offering a definitive opinion on his guilt or innocence, they should say that the indictment is “troubling” and that it “raises serious questions.” They should urge him to make full disclosure of all relevant information – a line that has the added advantage of reminding people about Hillary Clinton’s e-mail controversy.

If this advice sounds cynical, it is. During Washington scandals, cynicism and realism are pretty much the same thing.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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