Just when you thought Eliot Spitzer couldn't dig himself into a deeper hole on the issue of driver's licenses, the governor trades in his steamroller for an industrial drill.
More than two-thirds of New Yorkers strongly opposed his plan to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. But there was the other third, composed mostly of labor, civil liberties, and immigrant groups, who hailed the governor as a hero for resisting anti-immigrant fear mongering and sticking to principle.
So what does Mr. Spitzer do? He allies himself with the Bush administration, organizing a press conference with the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, to announce that New York will expedite compliance with federal REAL ID Act regulations and start issuing national identity cards. The federal IDs will be denied to unauthorized residents, who may still apply for a third-tier license stamped with: "not valid for federal purposes." The result is that Mr. Spitzer is pleasing no one but the White House.
Joseph Bruno and Albany Republicans are still complaining that illegal immigrants will be granted licenses, while civil rights and immigrant activists say the governor is treating undocumented New Yorkers as second-class residents by marking their licenses with what they view as a scarlet letter.
"We have praised his courage in standing up for the public good in the face of demagoguery," the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, Chung-Wha Hong, said. "But today, he has let his good name be used to give cover to a policy rejected by nearly two dozen states across the country, that tramples on Americans' civil rights and liberties and is fraught with implementation problems."
Mr. Spitzer's surprise endorsement of the REAL ID Act — an unintended consequence of issuing his license plan — is a striking case of a form of governing called policy by accident. He's insisting that his decision to implement REAL ID has nothing to do with the outpouring of opposition to his original license plan. It's a curious assertion given that the governor had been largely silent on his opinion of the REAL ID law.
A month ago, an administration spokeswoman told The New York Sun that it was too "premature" for the governor to take a position on REAL ID because the Homeland Security department hadn't released its final regulations. The Bush administration still hasn't, but that didn't stop the governor from striking a deal based on vague promises made by Mr. Chertoff.
So now, while a growing number of states have passed legislation opposing REAL ID because of privacy, bureaucratic, and financial concerns, New York is taking the lead in establishing a new license system without any public debate.
Sheldon Silver and the Assembly Democrats must be shaking their heads. They had already taken a political hit by standing behind Mr. Spitzer's initial license plan despite overwhelming public disapproval. Now they find themselves pressured to side with the Bush administration in the REAL ID debate.
Mr. Spitzer's handling of the license issue raises the question of what remains of his political base. He was propelled to the governorship by a diverse coalition of support. As a populist crusader, he appealed to "the people" by declaring war on the Wall Street elite. His strong defense of abortion rights, gay marriage, and a major expansion of funding for the public school system won him the allegiance of progressive New Yorkers.
At the same time, he cultivated a law-and-order image that played well with more conservative New Yorkers. As an Ivy League educated intellectual, Mr. Spitzer represented a refreshing departure from the low-class sleaze that permeated Albany.
The inclusive message was captured perfectly in one of Mr. Spitzer's indelible campaign ads, where the narrator says: "For every New Yorker drowning in property taxes, for every New Yorker who's been ignored, left out, who's been told you can't fight City Hall so many times they've come to believe it, for every New Yorker without a voice — listen: There's one strong enough for all of us." It concluded with a dramatic voice-over of Mr. Spitzer: "I represent the people of the State of New York."
In a span of less than a year, Mr. Spitzer, apparently resisting every instinct of self-preservation, has allowed the coalition to wither. Who does the governor represent? Is it the over-burdened taxpayer? The budget signed by the governor in April isn't likely to change New York's status as one of the highest-taxed states in the nation. Does he represent reform-minded New Yorkers? Perhaps not anymore after watching Mr. Spitzer engage in the sort of backroom dealing and partisan mischief to which they had grown accustomed. Is it liberal Democratic New Yorkers? They may be rethinking their allegiance in the wake of Mr. Spitzer's embrace of the Bush administration. For those who have been "ignored" and "left out," what are they to make of the governor's unilateral decision to create a lower class of identifications?
The irony is that, drained of political capital, Mr. Spitzer has little choice left but to remake himself into the establishment politician that he once despised.