Friday, November 16, 2007

POL 101 for Gov. Spitzer. Not a Good Grade.

Eliot Spitzer came to Albany in January as the you're-not-gonna-know-what-hit-you reforming governor. This hot shot prosecutor was expected to be a political steamroller, and of course a not-too-distant-future presidential candidate.

But I find that in politics nothing can be taken for granted (except taxes, I suppose).

But the Princeton and Harvard alum has found himself back in school rather than "teaching a few lessons" as we thought he would be. He recently shared this newly acquired insight: “Leadership is not solely about doing what one thinks is right.” You would think that someone would understand politics before he put himself forward as a political leader. (Consider Plato's comment on this in his "city as a ship" image in the Republic, 488a-489a.)

Let's assume that the governor is speaking honestly and that his driving passion is to serve what he believes is the public good. But politics is more than just good intentions. It requires knowledge, judgment and an ability to move people so that they want to follow you. Essentially it requires statesmanship.

Statesmanship is the just, prudent and persuasive exercise of authority.

  • In order for your government to be just, you have to be morally serious, concerned not for yourself but for the public good. You are a principled political leader, not an ambitious pol.

  • In order to be prudent, you have to recognize the natural limits to what can be accomplished through politics generally as well as in one's particular political circumstances. In 1787, you advocate the three-fifths compromise with the hope of defeating slavery down the road, rather than display your political purity and pass up the opportunity for a union of the American states. You must also have experience in order to judge wisely how to maximize justice in any given situation.

  • If you share power with others, you need the ability to persuade them in order to bring them into concert with your just and prudent plans. This persuasive ability--mastery in the art of rhetoric--is also necessary if you wish not only to change things for the people, but also change the people themselves, to make them more inclined to justice and more open to persuasion by just arguments.

This week, in the course of just one day, Gov. Spitzer has had to withdraw his proposal to give driver's licenses to illegal aliens, an idea opposed by 70% of New York state voters, as well as his plan to charge sales tax on purchases make by New Yorkers over the Internet, an obviously unpopular move especially at the start of the Christmas shopping season. These sudden reversals in the face of opposition are not only humiliating, but politically debilitating. Hunter College political science professor Ken Sherrill is quoted as saying, “Spitzer has to understand that other elected officials have a responsibility to represent their constituencies.” When you share power with others, even with people of your own party, who are rightly jealous of their power and responsive to their constituencies, prudence dictates persuasion rather than mere pronouncements.

Sherrill draws our attention to the pitfalls of electing a prosecutor to a political office: “It’s one thing to not get along with people as an attorney general or as an assistant district attorney. But there’s a need for it in the legislative process.”

Thoughts rise to the Giuliani candidacy. We are tempted to support him for his toughness, whether in dealing with al-Qaeda or with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. But will the governing style the worked in New York City translate successfully to Washington DC?

FYI - a Wall Street Journal editorial today offers a very informative summary and reflection on the Spitzer record and style thus far. Here is a sample:
Given Mr. Spitzer's fall in the polls, it's tempting to say New Yorkers have learned something new about the man who said on his inauguration day that, "we must change the ethics of Albany and end the politics of cynicism and division in our state." But the bullying, the arrogance and the focus on destroying anyone who stood his way were on full display when he was Attorney General. Most of the media chose to overlook these qualities, instead extolling his "crusading" style....The only real difference between Mr. Spitzer now and then is that as Governor he is obliged to govern, as opposed to merely bringing charges amid a PR offensive and then settling before having to prove anything in court. His heavy-handed approach to the drivers license plan shows the limits of such behavior in a job where he actually has to persuade people.

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