So where does the war end? A special session of the State Legislature this week is a prime opportunity for the two combatants to play nice and move forward on cutting property taxes and raising legislative pay. But the moment would likely be a pause in hostilities, not a cessation. Bruno is determined to embellish Spitzer’s image as a bully. Ask an administration official if Spitzer’s team has been doing anything to mend fences with Bruno and the response is, “We haven’t attacked.” Not yet, anyway.
Hugh Carey, Mario Cuomo, and George Pataki all had their spats with leaders of the Legislature. But those skirmishes, though personally heated, were about some policy issue—taxes, the death penalty, delivering the state budget on time. The Spitzer- Bruno war is about power. Underlying all of Spitzer’s strategy is his bedrock belief that a confrontation with the Legislature was inevitable—and necessary. Isn’t that why we elected him, to demolish the old, closed, corrupt way of doing business in Albany? Naturally the protectors of the status quo were going to scream and fight back with every weapon at their disposal. “Bruno feels threatened. It’s that simple,” a Spitzer aide says. With good reason: Spitzer declared early on that he was coming after Bruno’s Senate Republican majority, and he hasn’t let up. That’s why the bitterness won’t end—at least not until November 2008, but probably not ever.
Spitzer believes there’s good news for him below the surface of Republican-stoked furors. “On the driver’s-license issue, if you read the Latino press, or listen to Latino radio, Spitzer’s a hero,” a senior administration official says. “The Republicans look at the headlines the next day in places like the Post and feel good, but they’re playing a short-term game. We’re playing a long game. History is on our side.”
Maybe. But Spitzer can help himself sooner by emulating some of the less-emotive, more-traditional behind-the-scenes tactics that helped Bill Clinton climb out of a first-term ditch. The governor needs to quietly reach out to centrist legislators on both sides of the aisle with a more sophisticated array of carrots and sticks—some money for local parks and job creation here, some withdrawal of state offices there. Whether it’s property-tax cuts or campaign-finance reform, offer them something positive to talk about when they run for reelection. Spitzer doesn’t necessarily need Republicans to switch teams, just to be less lockstep in following Bruno’s anti-Spitzer party line. Because if this destructive struggle spreads, Aqueduct’s bettors will be only the first in a long line of losers.