Governor Spitzer would never acknowledge it, but his ruined campaign to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants is the best thing that has happened to his administration since Day 1. The policy failure is the lesson he needed to liberate him from the messianic leadership style that has been responsible for many of his first-year blunders. The governor is now freed of the burden of being Spitzer.
By abandoning his license effort, Mr. Spitzer violated his self-vaunted principles. Remember that "simple rule" he talked about in a campaign ad, the one in which he said what he was most proud of as attorney general was his willingness to "walk into the buzz-saw of some very powerful interests and never back down." That's out the window.
The governor surrendered to what he termed the "politics of fear." He caved to public opinion. He subordinated what was, in his words, factually, legally, morally, ethically right to political convenience. In doing so, Mr. Spitzer gave up his claim to superiority, which he has lorded over his adversaries, first on Wall Street and then in Albany.
Some argue, including the governor's closest advisers, that Mr. Spitzer is only as effective as his ability to maintain that claim — that the Spitzer brand is worthless when it ceases to represent a higher standard of politics. "Frankly, I think that's the forum in which he's always operated best and that hasn't changed," one adviser told me. The problem with this argument is that it's built around a false premise. It assumes that Mr. Spitzer has always operated on a higher ethical level. The governor's displays of probity, however, were always just that: displays. His foremost concern was the appearance — the marketing — of integrity. He made a big deal about imposing an absolute ban on gifts from lobbyists. Behind the scenes, he relied on lobbyists to replenish his campaign coffers. With much fanfare, he announced that he would adhere to a $10,000 cap on individual donations. He then tried to recover the lost cash by strongly encouraging donors to bundle contributions. He hailed the budget reforms passed by the Legislature as a measure that would shine sunlight on a historically secretive process. What followed was what many in Albany described as the least open budget negotiation session in recent memory.
The governor's preoccupation with keeping up appearances was so extreme that he didn't blink an eye before pinning blame for the entire Troopergate scandal on Darren Dopp, a man who had dedicated the previous eight years of his life toward the singular goal of advancing and championing Mr. Spitzer's career in government. Mr. Spitzer cut him off like an irritating wart.
In the end, the moral grandstanding hurt Mr. Spitzer. It was a crutch that acted as a substitute for the spadework of governing. Impugning the good intentions of his opponents and dividing everything into good and evil camps took the place of planning, outreach, and give
and take. He assumed he could win his battles simply by pronouncing the other side to be ethically wrong. That may have worked for him during his "Sheriff of Wall Street" days, but only because his declarations were propped up by threats of indictment and bankruptcy.
The bigger problem for Mr. Spitzer was that his moralizing hasn't been grounded in a philosophy. Ask anybody in Albany; nobody really knows what the governor stands for. He demanded Medicaid cuts with the same passion as he demanded increases to education funding. While he talked up the importance of reducing New York's tax burden, his administration has aggressively scoured for new ways to extract revenue from residents. One of the reasons his license policy failed is because New Yorkers never believed that the governor was motivated by anything other than a desire to score political points within immigrant communities.
The good news for Mr. Spitzer is that he doesn't have to worry about keeping up appearances and abide by his "simple rule." The next time he climbs up the tree of a misguided policy, he can climb down, just like he did in the case of his aborted Amazon Tax. As it turned out, giving up wasn't painful at all. It actually had a humanizing effect and earned him the most praise he's gotten as governor.
And now, instead of tending to the myth of Eliot Spitzer, the governor is free to devote himself to the few core issues on which his governorship will ultimately be judged. What do people want from a governor? I suppose they want a leader who will help transform New York into a state that people want to live in — not flee from. It's not a terribly sexy goal, but it will matter far more in the long run than whether Mr. Spitzer was able to preserve his self-image.