There is an expression—proven throughout American history—that the road to the White House runs not through Congress but through the State House.
That certainly helps explain why Jon Corzine, five years after purchasing a U.S. Senate seat for at least $63 million, happily walked away from the world’s most exclusive club—with a year remaining on his term—to take up residence in Trenton. Or why Eliot Spitzer, the fabled “Sheriff of Wall Street,” has worked to leverage his phenomenally high-profile tenure as New York State Attorney General into a stint as Governor.
Tellingly, neither man has moved to discourage rumors that they may one day run for President. And each sees reforming the culture of state government—in some of the most dysfunctional and hack-ridden circumstances in the country—as his ticket to the national stage.
Both have infuriated their state’s legislative leaders, even at the risk of imperiling their ability to secure passage of their agendas.
But so far, each has profited from the fight in the form of public approval.
After Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s dictatorial insistence last month that his legislative colleagues install as New York’s State Comptroller one of their own—as opposed to, say, one of the three qualified financial professionals (read: non-legislators) offered up by the Governor—Mr. Spitzer responded by venturing to the districts of Assembly backbenchers to call them out for their fealty to Mr. Silver.
So far, the steamroller act has worked. Few ordinary New Yorkers can even identify the new comptroller chosen by the Legislature. But anyone who pays even the most casual attention to state politics knows that the Governor “stood up” to the powerful Speaker and his cronies.
Mr. Corzine, by contrast with his colleague east of the Hudson, has gone about alienating New Jersey’s legislators in a less ostentatious way.
His approach was on display last summer, when a budget impasse between Mr. Corzine and Joe Roberts, the Democratic Assembly Speaker and the pride of the state’s most loathsome political machine, resulted in the Garden State’s first-ever government shutdown.
Mr. Roberts resisted Mr. Corzine’s call to raise the sales tax—a necessity, Mr. Corzine said, because of New Jersey’s status as perhaps the most fiscally mismanaged state in the country. There was talk that Mr. Corzine would engineer a coup and topple Mr. Roberts—a move that wouldn’t have been unprecedented in executive-legislative relations in New Jersey.
Instead, Mr. Corzine compromised, earmarking half of the new sales-tax revenue for property-tax relief and signing off on about $300 million in “Christmas tree” items to grease the budget’s passage—in effect, spending 80 percent of the supposedly urgent new revenue on expenses invented at the last minute.
When the state finally reopened, the legislature was widely blamed by the public, and suffered mightily in polls.
Meanwhile, Mr. Corzine’s numbers have reached new highs—although they are arguably no better than they should be for any scandal-free and publicly inoffensive Democrat in liberal New Jersey at the height of the Bush era—despite the widespread recognition among the state’s voters that their problems are far from solved.
So, has either man figured out a formula that could translate into a successful run for President?
For now, it’s hard to imagine.
At least in theory, Mr. Spitzer—13 years Mr. Corzine’s junior and unburdened by a term-limits law—can maintain his Presidential viability into next decade, particularly if he manages to cure Albany of some of its most visible ills. But, as George Pataki and Mario Cuomo proved before him, fresh turns to stale sometime in the third term, meaning Mr. Spitzer would probably have to pounce either in 2012 or 2016.
And what of Mr. Corzine?
His chances to run are tied to a Republican win next year, which would leave the Democratic nomination for 2012 open. Otherwise, he would have to wait until 2016, when he’d be an aging and long-forgotten ex-governor, sort of akin to Tommy Thompson and Jim Gilmore, two Republicans who are now rumored to be running for President.
That is why there’s a school of thought in New Jersey that, should Mrs. Clinton (who will soon be endorsed by Mr. Corzine) win next year, Mr. Corzine will seek an appointment as Treasury Secretary, settling for the satisfaction of replacing Hank Paulson, the man who pushed him out of his old job at Goldman Sachs.
That would make him fifth in line to the Presidency, which the smart money says is as close to the top as he’ll ever get.
Still, you can say one thing for him and for Mr. Spitzer: They’re giving the public their money’s worth.
Starting this week, Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.