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What's a Spitzer Democrat?

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The next governor will likely confront a nasty platter of problems. The state budget deficit will have ballooned after election-year giveaways by the State Legislature. Add to that the $23 billion that courts say the state owes city schools; Pataki is doing everything he can to hand off the bill to his successor. The state’s Medicaid system is riven by hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims, but that’s a minor problem compared to the looming demographic time bomb.

Spitzer keeps reminding everyone that his hero is Teddy Roosevelt—a calculating pragmatist who used the governorship as a stepping stone.

On the campaign trail, Spitzer has been uttering phrases that warm the hearts of conservatives. “In his speeches against Proposition 1, which would have shifted some budgeting power from the governor to the state legislature, Spitzer used the phrase ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,’ which I thought was very clever. And it has the added advantage of being true,” says Manhattan Institute budget expert E. J. McMahon. “There’s a strong risk that the next governor is going to inherit a lot of problems. The upside is that if it foments a crisis, you can maybe get the legislature to do things it wouldn’t do normally.” Faced with a major mess, Spitzer could rewrite the definition of a New York Democrat, in part by confronting some of the core Democratic constituencies. He could take on the state’s unions over exploding pension costs. And if Spitzer really wanted to be bold, Medicaid is ripe for revolution. Might Spitzer be willing to experiment with Florida-style privatization, where people have the option to set up “health savings accounts”?

Spitzer, as the prohibitive front-runner, is wisely avoiding many specifics right now. Still, his willingness as attorney general to push boundaries and entertain unconventional ideas provides real hope. Spitzer as governor would likely be more Bill Clinton triangulator than Mario Cuomo partisan. Not only would that be a good thing for the state, it would be a boon for the entire party. Besides, Spitzer keeps reminding everyone that his hero is Teddy Roosevelt, who was iconoclastic and calculating. “As New York governor, Roosevelt was a middle-of-the-road politician who was very cagily conducting himself with a view to the presidency,” says biographer Edmund Morris. But now we’re really getting ahead of the story.

online E-mail: Chris_Smith@nymag.com.


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