The power of the presidency, Harry Truman once said, is the power to persuade. That maxim applies to governors and mayors as well. In a democracy, chief executives can’t simply rule by fiat. They have to maintain good relations with their legislative partners in order to get anything done.
Seven months into his tenure as Governor, Eliot Spitzer apparently hasn’t quite figured out that he’s not a prosecutor anymore. You get the feeling that if Mr. Spitzer had his way, State Senator Joseph Bruno would have been hauled off to some gulag in the North Country months ago.
Details of Mr. Spitzer’s one-sided feud with the Senate Majority Leader have been leaking into the press in recent days. The accounts certainly are colorful: Mr. Bruno said the Governor threatened to “knock me down,” and Mr. Spitzer reportedly made some nasty comments about Mr. Bruno’s age and his mental capacity (Mr. Spitzer allegedly described him as “senile”).
Mr. Spitzer apparently made these remarks to one of Mr. Bruno’s fellow Republicans, which suggests that the Governor is not the righteous white knight he thinks he is, but in fact a political bully who sees opponents through the lens of a prosecutor—which means that in his world, those who oppose him are bad guys. And bad guys deserve investigation, prosecution and punishment. Mr. Spitzer turns the Truman Doctrine on its head: For him, the power of his office is not the power to persuade, but to punish.
The Governor’s abusive behavior is troubling enough. But what makes this episode downright sinister is the shadow of criminal investigations. A federal inquiry is looking into Mr. Bruno’s business dealings, and the state Attorney General’s office and the Albany district attorney reportedly are looking into his use of state aircraft and personnel for fund-raising events.
These investigations are loaded with political implications. The Governor, a political naif, has unwittingly set the stage for Mr. Bruno to cry “politics” if he is charged with wrongdoing as a result of the state and local inquiries against him.
Mr. Spitzer has ruined his political honeymoon with this absurd, pointless and self-defeating jihad. He entered office with a shining reputation as a straight-shooter and a reformer; now, he looks like a bully who doesn’t understand that politics is not a courtroom, that political opponents do not wear black hats, and that the power to persuade requires tact, patience and, yes, a certain affability that Mr. Spitzer seems to sorely lack.
Mr. Spitzer’s treatment of Mr. Bruno may cause New Yorkers to wonder about some of the cases he prosecuted as state Attorney General. Did he bully defendants the same way he is trying to bully Mr. Bruno?
The Governor must learn to govern. That means he has to put away the tools of a prosecutor and learn how to become—of all things—a politician.