Spitzer is down, but Spitzerism remains

The Governor of New York State has been reduced to ‘Client Number 9’ in a prostitution case, but his cynical approach to politics lives on.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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‘Did you hear about Spitzer?’ That was the question that stopped Americans in their tracks on Monday afternoon. People were stunned to learn that Eliot Spitzer, the governor of the state of New York, allegedly used the services of prostitutes from Emperor’s Club VIP, a firm facing criminal charges.

An American politician caught up in a sex scandal can hardly be called shocking. But the news about Spitzer was astonishing precisely because he had promoted himself so prominently as a crusader against corruption and a man of moral rectitude. Earlier this decade, he gained a national profile as the ‘Sheriff of Wall Street’, cracking down on apparent financial abuses in the Enron era. On the back of this notoriety, he swept into the top role in New York State in November 2006 as ‘Mr Clean’, promising to reform corruption in the corridors of state government.

Now the man heralded a year ago as having the potential to become the ‘first-ever Jewish president’ is politically radioactive, a truly remarkable decline in fortunes. Although Spitzer had yet to resign at the time of writing, it seemed very likely that his political career was all but over, as no prominent Democrat came to his support.

Most of the editorial commentary about Spitzer’s demise has focused on the man himself, with political columnists offering up psychological analysis. Spitzer must have ‘a huge screw loose’, wrote Bill Hammond in the New York Daily News (1). Many saw in it a sad family tragedy, especially for his wife Silda, who (in a now-customary pose) appeared dutifully at Spitzer’s side at his brief press announcement.

Many who discussed Spitzer’s fall in the broader context of his reform mission tended to highlight his individual failing in this instance, rather than seeing it as reflecting any inherent problem in his general approach to politics. In fact, prior to this incident, many, especially liberals, considered Spitzer a hero for taking on Wall Street and endorsed his campaign to clean up the state capitol. For instance, an editorial in the New York Times – an erstwhile supporter of Spitzer – was very harsh, stating that Spitzer ‘betrayed the public’ and ‘this was not the first time that Mr Spitzer has been caught up in his own arrogance’. But the Times also cited ‘the damage he has done to the reform cause’, a cause the Times still supports. ‘A further tragedy’, it writes, is that ‘those on Wall Street who fumed at having to make their world fairer for ordinary shareholders can now chortle with satisfaction in their private enclaves’ (2). In other words, Spitzer let down the side.

Spitzer’s critics, mainly conservatives, were more likely to see his antics with prostitutes as consistent with his political methods. But even they focused on his supposed personal shortcomings and excesses. The New York Post listed Spitzer’s ‘baggage’ as governor: the ‘Dirty Tricks’ scandal (also known as ‘Troopergate’) in which Spitzer aides have been accused of arranging for the police to spy on their Republican opponents; his temper (he apparently told an opposition leader ‘I’m a fucking steamroller and I will destroy you’); and his alleged subversion of political donation rules he himself established. The Post concluded: ‘At some point, a pattern emerges: Eliot Spitzer believes the rules don’t apply to him – not even, apparently, those to be found in the federal criminal codes.’ (3) Likewise, the Wall Street Journal identified habitual bad behaviour: ‘The stupendously deluded belief that the sitting governor of New York could purchase the services of prostitutes was merely the last act of a man unable to admit either the existence of, or need for, limits.’ His recklessness as governor was ‘as a piece with his consistent excesses as attorney general from 1999 to 2006’ (4).

The observations from all sides are off the mark. We can’t know why Spitzer took such a risk, so it’s really not worth trying to get inside his head. And it’s also not useful to try to force a link between his dalliances and his politics. But most importantly, the focus on Spitzer the individual misses out on the fact that he has embodied some backward trends in American politics. The anti-corruption campaigns he is most associated with are the real problem – not his ‘arrogance’, ‘bullying’ or ‘anger management issues’.

Many supported Spitzer’s crackdown on Wall Street, seeing him as a progressive restrainer of capitalism’s excesses. But in doing so, Spitzer elevated government power in an undemocratic fashion. He employed aggressive tactics that denied due process under the law to defendants. In fact, in many cases he never actually brought charges, he simply threatened individuals with public denunciations. That alone would often be a potential death sentence for companies and so they settled before charges ever were formally made. Furthermore, in certain cases, such as Marsh & McLennan and AIG, Spitzer forced companies to ditch their CEOs and install his handpicked replacements (including, at Marsh & McLennan, his former legal mentor) – an extreme form of government intervention in the operation of companies.

Effectively, Spitzer was a big player (although not the only one) in turning what were previously seen as bad business judgments into criminal behaviour. He was able to get away with it because few would come to the defence of unpopular corporate titans. And despite hyped-up claims, ‘ordinary people’ have few benefits to show from his crackdown on ‘powerful interests’.

Many also supported Spitzer’s electoral campaign for governor in 2006, with its message of cleaning up state government. But what was less remarked upon was the fact that Spitzer had very little else to offer other than anti-corruption proposals. While ridding corruption sounds like a noble objective, it concealed a lack of positive vision. Moreover, corruption cannot be eliminated from the top down; only an engaged public can hold politicians accountable. Like with his anti-Wall Street efforts, Spitzer’s anti-corruption campaign was really about giving him and the state government more unchecked power.

The ironic thing about anti-corruption campaigns is that they can unleash unforeseen, uncontrolled dynamics. And this happened in Spitzer’s case. In the past year it has been his administration that has been fighting off numerous charges of corruption. By November 2007, these charges and the general impasse in the state capitol resulted in 70 per cent of voters in New York having a negative view of his regime. And the prostitution imbroglio is another example of how Spitzer has been hoisted by his own anti-corruption petard: the federal government investigators were originally tipped off when the IRS tax authorities discovered unusual activity from Spitzer’s bank accounts, which they suspected could be evidence of bribes (5). The anti-corruption crusader was done in by a bigger anti-corruption government body.

Spitzer’s downfall via the prostitutes scandal does not at all challenge the negative trends he represented. Spitzer himself may be politically dead, but Spitzerism unfortunately lives on. Although the anti-corporate fervour he championed has died down since, the criminalisation and greater regulation of business continues. And anti-corruption is an ongoing preoccupation, including in the national election, with Obama dogged by alleged links to the Chicago developer Tony Rezko.

Accusations of hypocrisy always target the messenger for not living up to the message, and thus do not criticise the message itself. This is also true of the charges that Spitzer is a hypocrite. Consequently, Spitzer can leave the scene, but that doesn’t stop another politician from coming along and picking up where he left off. One such politician could be Andrew Cuomo, the son of Democratic Party patriarch Mario Cuomo. The younger Cuomo is now in Spitzer’s old post, New York State attorney general, and is similarly playing up his campaigns, such as that against student loan companies, to leverage himself into higher office. But there are many other candidates, too.

While the politicians jockey in the aftermath of Spitzer’s ruin, the general popular reaction (beyond fascination with the lurid details) seems to be deeper cynicism about politicians of all stripes. Republicans themselves have been immersed in sex scandals (such as those involving Republicans senators David Vitter and Larry Craig) and thus they are unlikely to gain tactical advantage from the Spitzer revelations. Instead, many seem to have adopted a ‘plague on both your houses’ outlook. With neither party having inspiring political visions, we’re regrettably faced with the spectacle of the political class turning inward and attacking each other on the grounds of corruption, rather than on the basis of competing ideas about how best to run society. That is the immediate legacy of Spitzer’s demise.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Sean Collins suggested that even those who hate big business should be concerned about the Enron trial. Elsewhere, he warned about the dogma of transparency. Daniel Ben-Ami looked at the case of Paul Wolfowitz and the unhealthy obsession with corruption and suggested that it was this concern with sleaze that was corrupting politics. Or read more at spiked issues USA and Economy.

(1) ‘From 54th gov to Client No. 9’, New York Daily News, 11 March 2008

(2) Mr Spitzer’s ‘private matter’, New York Times, 11 March 2008

(3) NY’s naked emperor, New York Post, 11 March 2008

(4) Spitzer’s rise and fall, Wall Street Journal, 11 March 2008

(5) It wasn’t the sex; suspicious $$ transfers led to Spitzer, abcnews, 10 March 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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