The Spitzer-Corzine Approach

Understandably, commenters on Eliot Spitzer’s humiliating demise have drawn parallels to another nearby governor felled by a sex scandal, New Jersey’s Jim McGreevey. But the better comparison is between Spitzer and Jon Corzine, one of McGreevey’s successors.

Both Spitzer and Corzine followed the same basic path to their respective state capitols, outsiders who called themselves reformers and railed against business as usual to general public, while simultaneously enjoying the unflinching backing of powerful establishment forces and mighty party machines.

Both men had unusual leverage with party bosses, who quickly calculated that opposing them in party primaries would be futile and costly. Spitzer’s trump card was his priceless reputation as the “sheriff of Wall Street,” which translated into such enormous popularity with the average voter that the 2006 New York election was a coronation from the moment he entered it. And in New Jersey, Corzine had his cash, which he promised to shower on the state’s powerful Democratic organizations if they backed him in his 2005 campaign – or to use against them if they dared oppose him.

In effect, they were both allowed to have their cake and eat it too, speaking the defiant language of reform – always a hit with the electorate – while meeting little visible resistance from the establishment against which they were campaigning. It was too easy. What’s more, both Spitzer and Corzine, evidently, believed that governing would be the same smooth transaction that winning office had been.

As they prepared to take office, Corzine in January 2006 and Spitzer a year later, the people around them made it known that they envisioned their political careers extending well beyond Trenton and Albany. They would both bring reform to states where politics had traditionally been just another racket, roll up astonishing approval ratings, and then – just like Woodrow Wilson a hundred years ago – take their rhetoric and their results national in a presidential campaign.

Both were very quickly disabused of such fanciful notions.

Corzine came to office as only the latest New Jersey governor to promise a solution to the state’s onerous property tax burden, the top complaint of most residents for decades. And he spoke of the professionalism and integrity that would mark his stewardship, assuring voters that his no-nonsense corporate background would yield a government whose ethical conduct would – at long last – make them proud. He dangled other enticing prospects before the public too, like a universal health coverage program.

“Hold me accountable,” he declared in his inaugural address.

The problem is that most of his sweeping proposals, harmless as planks in a campaign platform, would have required the same establishment forces that had backed Corzine to surrender much of their power and influence if they were ever enacted. Most realistic solutions to the state’s property tax mess, for instance, would require a radical change of the state’s home-rule tradition, in which individual towns – some of them microscopic – administer an array of costly services on their own. To alter this tradition would be to dis-empower an entire layer of government and bureaucracy.

The same members of Corzine’s own party who so willingly backed him in his ’05 campaign saw to it that his property tax plan went nowhere, watering it down and skillfully raising doubts in the public’s mind over whether the governor’s prescription might be worse than the ailment. His fellow Democrats also went to war with him on his first budget, forcing an embarrassing state shutdown around the 4th of July holiday. And many of them are fleeing from him now as he peddles his plan to rein in the state’s debt: toll hikes. His two-plus years on the job have also been marked by an unending stream of revelations about his relationship – both personal and financial – with the head of the most powerful state employees’ union.

A poll last week gave Corzine a 37 percent approval rating, no better than McGreevey just before news of the scandal that killed him off in 2004 broke. The permanent government of Trenton, it seems, is well on its way to claiming another victim.

Spitzer’s story, right up until its spectacular ending, played out much the same way. If anything, he entered New York’s governorship two Januarys ago in stronger political position than Corzine, having won office with nearly 70 percent of the vote. But the same kind of permanent government saw to it that the new governor squandered that goodwill, and quickly.

Reports that Spitzer aides enlisted the state police to help sully the reputation of the state’s top Republican cast doubt on the governor’s reputation for integrity, as did his stonewalling. And his combative style with his own party – particularly when he very publicly aired his grievances with the elevation of a Democratic legislator to the post of state comptroller – undermined his ability to rely on them in political battles and, as last week showed, during personal turmoil.

Spitzer is gone now, and for good. Corzine still has nearly two years left on his term, and may end up running for re-election next year. But he’s already paid a heavy price. When’s the last time anyone talked about Jon Corzine for President?

The Spitzer-Corzine Approach