Disgraced former NY Gov. Eliot Spitzer jumped back into elective politics this week with a run for comptroller of New York City. Before his $800 a day signature gatherers had even gathered enough signatures to put him on the ballot, he had jumped out to a nine-point lead.
That lead may or may not tighten, but Spitzer is likely to win for two reasons.
First, he enjoys a massive advantage in name recognition over his opponent, Scott Stringer. Comptroller is an obscure race; most of New York had probably never heard of Stringer until Spitzer jumped into the race against him.
When he jumped into the race, Spitzer played his past very cannily. As governor, Spitzer made a great show of going after lawbreakers of all sorts including prostitution rings. But at the same time he was Client 9, a customer of a major prostitution ring. When he announced his candidacy for comptroller, he immediately asked for forgiveness.
This was a brilliant, devious move.
Americans are forgiving people. We are especially forgiving if we sense that someone else’s sins don’t really impact our own everyday lives. Spitzer’s didn’t, at least not directly. Cosmopolitan New Yorkers would consider it beneath them to hold a man’s private life against him — unless he’s a Republican, at which point cosmopolitans become the most provincial people on earth. Cosmopolitans believe Sarah Palin is Satan’s sister, while they completely ignore the fact that Al Sharpton has built his career in politics and media on anti-Semitism, hoaxes and blood. Palin was a successful governor who rooted out corruption, but cosmopolitans favor Sharpton’s National Action Network, which dispenses social services in order to buy support for and deflect from its less savory threats and tactics. Hey, it works for Hamas!
Spitzer forced New Yorkers into answering the wrong question: Will you forgive me?
The right question to ask here is: Is Spitzer fit to hold the public’s trust?
To err is human, to forgive, divine. We all want to be divine. But real forgiveness in Spitzer’s life is in the hands of his family and God. It’s not really in the hands of millions of strangers.
The question before New York voters ought not to be about forgiveness, but about fitness. Is the man who flouted laws he was supposed to uphold really fit to manage our city’s finances? Is he really the best man for this job? Can’t New York possibly do better?
If Scott Stringer frames the election that way, he might overcome Spitzer’s name recognition advantages, frame the electorate around what the public trust truly means, and win the election. If he doesn’t, he may as well quit wasting New Yorkers’ time and drop out of the race.