How Eliot Spitzer Missed His Money Shot

Spitzer
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Eliot Spitzer’s political career, gravely injured after a collision with reality on Monday, finally passed into the great unknown two days later. But Spitzerism — the soul, that is, of his career — expired months ago.

Unlike virtually every other Democratic politician in the country, Eliot Spitzer understood markets. He believed in the potential of widespread investing in stocks to build and spread genuine wealth, and as attorney general, he was like a Money magazine editor on crack, targeting enemies of small investors: self-promoting analysts, corrupt mutual-fund traders, predatory lenders. Spitzerism wasn't about taxing and regulating profits; it was about diffusing profits to people who have never received a dividend check.

After failing to make his case on a national level through the Kerry campaign, Spitzer took Spitzerism to the 2006 governor's race, where he won 69 percent of the vote, a landslide so big it was clear he didn't owe his margin to Shelly Silver or Dennis Rivera or Al Sharpton or Randy Weingarten or the Cuomo family or anyone else you're tired of seeing on Democratic-primary nights.

And then he fell off a cliff. Spitzer will be remembered for his hookers. But the truth is, by the time he was cavorting with Kristen at the Mayflower Hotel just before Valentine's Day, Spitzer had already shot his load.

As Spitzer was rolling into Albany in early 2007, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi was leaving in disgrace. New York’s constitution says the State Legislature must fill executive vacancies, but that didn’t matter to the new governor. Spitzer set up an independent panel to name Hevesi’s successor, which triggered an entirely unnecessary confrontation; if ever a governor had the resources to work around a comptroller, it was Spitzer. He then watched the Legislature choose one of its own members over the panel’s nominee, by a vote of 150 to 56. Spitzer’s typically pugilistic response was to try to undermine assemblymen from his own party by visiting their districts to denounce them for their votes.

Then came the budget, Spitzer’s first real chance to put his stamp on the machinery of New York State. Since Spitzer had campaigned relentlessly against George Pataki’s inability to get budgets passed on time, his opponents knew they could torture Spitzer simply by dragging their feet. Spitzer did get his budget through by deadline, but only by doing what the Pataki-Bruno-Silver cabal always used to do — dolloping out a few hundred million more dollars to Medicaid and hoping the spit on the envelope would stick. Someday, maybe smart, young policy analysts will admire provisions that Spitzer’s staff tucked into the budget; in the meantime, the state’s deficit is projected to climb to $4.3 billion by 2008–09.

And then came Troopergate. You can find everything you want to know about Joe Bruno here, but in the long run, Spitzer’s political response is what turned out to be important. Already shorn of allies by his own bullheadedness, Spitzer grew desperate once his operatives were caught playing naughty tricks on the State Senate majority leader. As summer turned to fall and he couldn’t shake the scandal, Spitzer proposed giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants with passports. He said he would sue the Bush administration for thwarting his plan to expand children’s health insurance. He wiped out rules requiring food-stamp recipients to go through fingerprinting and interviews. And the MTA, where Spitzer pulls the strings, sided with the Transit Workers Union in asking a judge to ease penalties imposed on the TWU for breaking state law during the 2005 transit strike.

Maybe each of these moves makes sense; certainly Spitzer was willing to argue them on the merits. Taken together, however, they smelled an awful lot like Bill Clinton circa 1998, toadying to as many Democratic interest groups as possible to drum up support among the left-wing base.

It didn't work. A Siena poll in December pegged Spitzer's approval rating at 36 percent. That number would bob up and down afterward, but the days were gone when a large majority of New Yorkers believed in Spitzer as a fundamentally different kind of politician. Even worse, only one in three Democrats said they wanted to reelect him. Spitzer had tried to sell out to the base, but not even left-wingers were buying; his career was effectively done. That's the kind of news that can drive a guy to prostitutes.

There’s a huge sigh going around Albany, and it’s not just because Spitzer finally resigned, or that Democrats and Republicans alike think that David Paterson will be easier to work with. The big question when Spitzer came to town was whether he would keep using the authority of state government to go after inequities on Wall Street or turn his zeal for cleanup on Albany itself. He did neither and didn’t even stick around long enough to see if the Democrats could take the State Senate. Instead, fighting to survive largely self-inflicted wounds, Spitzer became one more Democrat embodying reactionary liberalism. Now it’s back to business as usual. —Peter Keating