It’s often been said that political careers, like love affairs, go in cycles. They begin with flirtation, progress to infatuation, and—if the politician is lucky—lead to consummation. But, as in a relationship, there comes a point in every politician’s time in public life when he (or she) starts to become a little grating, when affection dims, when the act of congress with the populace starts to feel awkward and perfunctory. The qualities that made him (or her) so attractive in the first place become gradually less endearing. Confidence starts to look like cockiness. Charming words start to sound glib. The affair begins to sour.
I think we can now safely say that Eliot Spitzer is entering his first real rough patch in his tenure as governor of New York. And, not surprisingly, it’s the very characteristics that brought him to power that are causing him problems now. When you’re a prosecutor cultivating an image as an uncompromising trust-buster, sending investigators to look into a public official’s rumored wrongdoing (and leaking details of their findings to the press) is just part of the job description. When you’re the governor, and your antagonist is Majority Leader of the state senate, such actions smack of Huey Long-style imperialism. When you’re a prosecutor bringing a criminal case, extremism in the defense of justice is no vice. When you’re a governor, it sounds shrill and childish to tell your opponent “I’m going to knock you out.” It brings to mind the sort of arm-twisting statements Bill Clinton and his people made when they roared into Washington in 1993. (On Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the health care debate: “We’ll roll right over him if we have to.”) And we all know how that story turned out.
Spitzer’s spat with Joe Bruno over the last couple of weeks has diminished both men in the public eye, but since Bruno isn’t the one promising to reform the ways of Albany, it’s hurt the governor more. This morning, he received a very gentle scolding from a very sympathetic outlet, the New York Times editorial board. The good news for Spitzer is that, like love affairs, political careers are mutable things. There are constant shifts in power and tone. A politician can change, grow—learn to do the dishes, so to speak. In the coming weeks, I think Spitzer would be well-advised to quiet down, quit the confrontational publicity stunts, and lower rhetorical heat and bit. And let the FBI do the investigating.