Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Reflections on the Spitzer Scandal

Since everyone else is commenting on the downfall of Eliot Spitzer, I might as well put in my two cents' worth. A few qualifications at the beginning. First, I have not followed Spitzer's career closely enough to have a clear sense of whether his prosecutions of white collar crime on Wallstreet were hardball but admirable actions to clean up Wallstreet or vindictive abuse of power and little better than blackmail. Second, Spitzer has only himself, not New York politics, public corruption or anything else to blame for his decision to use the services of prostitutes. At face value, his private vice may seem to have little to do with any larger public issue, but I believe there are some larger lessons to be learned here.

What you can get away with depends on who you are. My initial reaction to hearing that Spitzer was "involved in a prostitution ring" was that if he was merely a customer, it was a private pecadillo, but if he was on the take he should do maximum time. But others convinced me that what is a petty vice in a "charming rogue" politician is not so easily dismissed in a righteous crusader. An Attorney General, as a law enforcement official, has a special obligation to obey the law. And when he has aggressively and publicly prosecuted prostitution rings in the past, his use of prostitutes is inexcuseable. Even the argument that the proper punishment for this sort of hypocrisy is ridicule and mockery, not forced retirement, let along criminal charges, is unconvincing. Some politicians (say, charming rogues like Bill Clinton) can survive mockery and ridicule. A pillar of righteousness like Spitzer cannot.

Beware of leaders with authoritarian tendancies. Blogger Sara Robinson of Orcinus likes to warn that authoritarian leaders rarely follow the rules they set down for others. She was thinking mostly of Republicans, of course, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that one party has a monopoly on authoritarianism. Spitzer's whole aggressive, punitive, hardball, and vindictive style was the mark of an authoritarian streak a mile wide. And let's face it, in seeking popularity by proving his toughness in dealing with his own set of scapegoats (Wallstreet crooks), Spitzer was appealing to the same base instincts as any right-winger proving his toughness against right-wing scapegoats (illegal immigrants, Arabs, terrorists, etc).

Granted, Spitzer preyed on the powerful and right wingers prey on the powerless. The difference is important. He seems to have done good work, cleaning up corruption and fraud and forcing valuable reforms. And one can fairly argue that a tough, aggresive, combative, even vindictive style was necessary given the powerful interests he was up against. But the fact that authoritarian traits can serve good ends does not make them any less authoritarian. And while the authoritarian approach can be put to constructive use, we would do well to limit it within strict bounds, because it remains dangerous. Which leads to the next, closely related point.

A good Attorney General is not necessarily a good Governor. Eliot Spitzer's political career was already in deep trouble even before the latest scandal broke. The Attorney General is a purely executive office, authoritarian, top down, and not involved in lawmaking. An Attorney General's role is specifically in litigation -- adversarial, combative, focusing on conflict and not cooperation. An Attorney General does not have to do the things a governor does -- negotiate with the legislature, compromise, cut deals, give a little to get a little, and go along to get along. It is these things that make democratic politicians seem sleazy and unprincipled to many people. The rotten compromises of democratic politics tempt many people admire more authoritarian figures such as military men or AG's who do not have to make dirty deals.

Such criticisms are not entirely unfounded. Politicians often do elevate deal-making and getting along above all else and make careers of scratching each other's backs. Left unchallenged, this can degenerate into a corrupt, cozy little oligarchy, a government of the insiders, by the insiders and for the insiders. We need obnoxious, uncompromising reformers, not afraid of making enemies among the powerful, to shake things up. Every legislature could use a few such trouble makers. Attorney General is an office made to order for a crusading reformer bent on shaking things up. But chief executives (Governors or Presidents) have to work, to some extent, within the system, or the system will resist them every step of the way.

When overly rigid, "principled" leaders come to power and refuse to play politics, the results can get ugly. Spitzer was well in the process of learning this the hard way when his career met an unexpected downfall. If he had been a highly successful and popular leader (like, say, Bill Clinton) he might have survived the scandal. Weakened an unpopular, he did not.

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