Spitzer’s New Year

It’s hard to know who was happier to see 2007 disappear—Governor Eliot Spitzer, or Madison Square Garden’s James Dolan. For both men, the past 12 months have been dreadful. But for Mr. Dolan, the new year does not mean a new season: His Knicks did not get a clean slate when the ball dropped in Times Square. The misery will continue at the Garden for the remainder of the 2007-08 season.

In the game of politics, however, January means fresh starts and new opportunities. Mr. Spitzer will give his State of the State address and his budget message in the coming weeks, signaling his priorities for 2008. The rituals offer him a chance to begin anew after one of the worst rookie seasons in recent history.

In 2007, Mr. Spitzer managed to fritter away an impressive mandate in part thanks to his obsessive dislike for the State Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno. The upstate lawmaker played the unlikely role of Fidel Castro to Mr. Spitzer’s John Kennedy, and while the governor may not have ordered a state police invasion of Rensselaer County, Mr. Bruno’s home base, it’s clear that some Spitzer aides believed that the governor wanted Mr. Bruno brought down by any means necessary.

The ensuing spectacle put a quick end to Mr. Spitzer’s political honeymoon after his landslide election in 2006 and cast serious doubts on the governor’s political I.Q. There’s no question that Mr. Spitzer is a smart guy. The question is whether he understands how to govern.

That very important question will be answered this year. How it turns out depends on which Eliot Spitzer shows up in the Statehouse over the next few weeks. If it’s a chastened, wiser Mr. Spitzer, New York will be better off. If it’s the immature, petulant adolescent of 2007, New York can expect a disastrous repeat of last year.

Actually, a repeat of last year would be doubly disastrous, because an economic slowdown figures to wreak havoc with the state’s finances. Serious decisions and painful choices loom—and, to make the picture even more complicated, the Legislature (but not the governor) is up for reelection this year. If fiscal discipline is to be the order of the day, Mr. Spitzer will have to work closely with Mr. Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to address the concerns of lawmakers worried about getting reelected.

Mr. Spitzer will have to bring state spending on health care under control, which means taking a hard look at the Berger Commission’s recommendations for hospital closures and consolidations. In addition, the state faces a crisis in the State University of New York system, which is on the verge of losing its reputation as a first-class institution for higher education.

Eliot Spitzer has had a year to learn that governing New York State is not the same as being the attorney general, that building coalitions is tougher than prosecuting individuals and that being governor involves more than winning election to office; it means meeting public objectives and getting legislation passed.

Suffice it to say, 2008 is not the time to carry on private feuds and indulge personal rivalries. Mr. Spitzer surely knows that. The question is whether he has the personal discipline necessary to bring a measure of peace and productivity to Albany.