The story of Eliot Spitzer's first year as governor is about a political star struggling to figure out who he wants to be after abandoning the identity that made him famous. Mr. Spitzer became governor wearing the Superman cape in which he performed his investigative heroics as attorney general. He has realized that in Planet Albany, Superman's powers don't work, and people laugh at you for wearing a cape. He's a politician just like everyone else.
For Mr. Spitzer, it's been a year of the compromise. On the biggest issues, Mr. Spitzer readied for battle and then blinked. The most recent example is his shifting tone on campaign finance reform.
Two months ago, Mr. Spitzer erupted after Senate Republicans refused to go along with his proposal to slash contribution limits and ban donations from limited liability companies. He said Republicans were "unwilling to break their addiction to the free flow of money" and vowed to "travel to every district in the state to make it very clear to the citizens of this state" that Republicans are "not willing to say, ‘We believe in reform.'"
Mr. Spitzer never went on that tour. And now when you listen to him talk about campaign finance, you get the sense that his heart isn't in the battle anymore. Last week, the Republican Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, sat beside the governor at a public meeting and mocked Mr. Spitzer's decision to refuse to accept individual contributions of more than $10,000.
"You set a limit on yourself, governor, at $10,000 … But you have a fundraiser to bundle $1 million, and you reward people for bundling a $1 million … Ten thousand dollar limit. Sounds great. Good press release. So what?" he said. Mr. Bruno described the governor's position as "nonsense" and "nuts." Mr. Spitzer, who responded with a polite and legalistic argument in defense of campaign limits, sounded nothing like the man who declared war on Mr. Bruno and Senate Republicans in April.
Mr. Spitzer is also singing a different tune on the issue of horseracing. Four years ago, his attorney general released a report declaring that the New York Racing Association was not only financially incompetent but also corrupt. NYRA responded by declaring bankruptcy and claiming that the state couldn't take away its franchise because the association owned the track land. The litigious strategy appears to have worked. Now Mr. Spitzer wants a "reconstituted" NYRA to hold onto the franchise, as if also the problems he cited in his report have disappeared.
Mr. Spitzer's biggest compromise of the year was on the budget. Mr. Spitzer declared that he was blowing up the old system of education funding and was going to distribute money based on need instead of politics. The funding formula was changed, yet the Long Island suburbs received the same percentage of education aid that they have always gotten. It also looked as if Mr. Spitzer would stand firm in his battle with the hospital employees union, the one interest group that didn't get everything it wanted in the governor's budget. Mr. Spitzer backed down, restoring most of the cuts to the hospitals.
Now, approaching the end of the legislative session, Mr. Spitzer has employed the strategy of throwing spaghetti at the wall. His administration has bounced from issue to issue so many times that nobody has any idea what the governor's priorities are. The sense among lawmakers is that Mr. Spitzer is hoping that something will stick — even if it's something as harmless and meaningless as a "crackdown" on violent video games — and declare the year a success.
This strategy points to a mistake in political calculation that the administration has made repeatedly. The force behind all of these compromises is a fear of failure. Mr. Spitzer, so used to playing the role of superhero, doesn't want to publicly acknowledge that he's come back to Earth. Settling is easier than fighting it out and losing. He has a mandate to get a lot of things done quickly and can't afford to look weak and inactive, so he compromises and pronounces those compromises as victories.
By worrying about the day-to-day headlines, Mr. Spitzer is losing focus of the bigger goals. Over time, however, Mr. Spitzer won't be able to hide what his administration hasn't accomplished. At the end of his first term, Mr. Spitzer will be judged on a few things: Was the cost of doing business reduced? Is the population rebounding? Are taxes any lower? Are we getting more bang for the buck on education and health care? If he accomplishes those tasks, he will have succeeded where his predecessors failed. That would be something heroic.