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OPINION | Smiling at corruption

DEMOCRATS have failed all year to find a cogent midterm campaign theme, but one appears to be attaching to them all the same: Listen to what we say; ignore what we do.

Nowhere is this truer than in blue, blue New Jersey, where Sen. Bob Menendez is suddenly struggling. Businessman and Republican nominee Bob Hugin has spent months educating Garden State voters on Mr. Menendez’s adventures with a now-convicted criminal. The more the voters learn, the tighter the race becomes. Recent public polls have awarded Mr. Menendez a 6- or 7-point lead, though a new internal Hugin poll claims the gap is now less than 2.

Democrats are alarmed enough that the Senate Majority PAC this week decided to reroute a precious $3 million to bolster Mr. Menendez with television advertising. The decision is extraordinary, given the number of Senate seats Democrats are already struggling to defend, many in states President Trump carried. But it is even more extraordinary for the statement — campaign theme, if you will —Democrats are rolling out with this ad buy. Namely, don’t believe us.

This is the party that claims to be running against a Republican “culture of corruption.” Democrats have highlighted the conviction of Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and introduced anticorruption bills in Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in August even provided her members a “toolkit” for talking about supposed GOP misdeeds. They present the Trump White House as some mix of the yakuza and a drug cartel.

Yet here Democrats are intervening on behalf of the one federal lawmaker to have been definitively judged by his peers as corrupt in recent years — to have abused his office, to have scorned ethics rules, to have brought “discredit” on the Senate. A bipartisan letter from the Senate Ethics Committee in April “severely admonished” Mr. Menendez, finding that for six years he had “knowingly and repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value” from his close friend and Democratic Party donor, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. The gifts included luxury private-plane flights, soirees in Paris hotels, and free accommodation at a Dominican Republican villa — where Mr. Menendez stayed not once or twice but 19 times.

Throughout this, Mr. Menendez just happened to be advancing Dr. Melgen’s business interests in Washington — lobbying a cabinet official over a Medicare billing dispute, and supporting visa applications for Dr. Melgen’s overseas girlfriends. Some people might call this a quid pro quo, and federal prosecutors did, obtaining an indictment against Mr. Menendez in 2015. The charges were dropped after the Supreme Court tightened the standards on proving such cases. Dr. Melgen, however, was convicted last year of Medicare fraud and has been sentenced to 17 years in federal prison.

One last poignant detail to add to this Democratic theme of anti-anticorruption: The 2015 Menendez indictment noted that in 2012 a fundraiser for a powerful Democratic political outfit accepted two $300,000 contributions from Dr. Melgen’s company, and then earmarked them for Mr. Menendez’s re-election that year. The political outfit? The Senate Majority PAC, the group spending millions to now rescue Mr. Menendez.

Political spending aside, Mr. Menendez’s Democratic colleagues have also shown they are more than happy to tolerate corruption in their own ranks — at least if it means one more Senate seat. After the feds dropped charges, Democrats allowed Mr. Menendez to regain his position as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They permitted him to keep that job even after the Ethics Committee issued its four-page letter admonishing Mr. Menendez.

Following the federal indictment, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer lauded Mr. Menendez as “one of the best legislators in the Senate.” Fellow New Jerseyite Sen. Cory Booker offered his unabashed support even after the Senate admonishment. The Garden State’s Democratic establishment squeezed out the only declared primary challenger to Mr. Menendez, Michael Starr Hopkins, who failed to raise any real money from any Democratic power brokers. Those scions instead all endorsed Mr. Menendez for re-election.

The Hugin campaign dropped another tough ad this past week, referencing a 2015 federal court filing that states the government had been “presented with specific, corroborated allegations that defendants Menendez and Melgen had sex with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.” Mr. Menendez strenuously denies that. It is nonetheless remarkable to watch Democrats and their media allies close ranks to insist there is a soaring standard of proof for such serious claims. This in light of their uncorroborated claims against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as well as Mr. Mendendez’s own moralizing complaints that we live in a world in which a woman can “speak truth to power about a sexual assault,” but “they will not believe you.”

And with that, we are back again to Democrats’ 2018 theme. You can listen to what they say. Or you can believe your own nonlying eyes.