In New York: Spitzer Returns

Eliot Spitzer's sudden political re-emergence, as a candidate for Comptroller of New York City, is an exercise in redemption, or farce. Take your pick.

American voters are generally a forgiving bunch. Apparently, it's possible to fall flat on your face, dust yourself off, and re-enter electoral politics. Ask Mark Sanford or Anthony Weiner. Sanford is a hard-right Tea Party Republican who sought personal forgiveness and a Republican Congressional seat in South Carolina. He publicly prostrated himself for forbidden liaisons and won the primary and general elections. Weiner is a hard-driving liberal Democrat from Brooklyn who has surged to the lead of the primary race for mayor of New York City after embarrassing himself and his high-profile wife with bizarre internet postings.

But not everybody qualifies. Forgiveness seems reserved for those whose peccadilloes are personal, and, well, personal. There's little willingness to forgive a thief, especially when public funds were involved. It makes some sort of sense. Private lives have never been much of a measure of public effectiveness, (See FDR, Ike, JFK, Rockefeller, Reagan ... I could go on) but once a thief....

Comes now Eliot Spitzer. He too acknowledges personal flaws and asks to be readmitted to public life. It's easy to remember the truly bizarre sins, the stuff of late-night monologues and a monumental fall from grace. If that's the only conversation he can hope for a Weiner/Sanford rebirth.

He also comes also with a record of successful opposition to the rogues gallery on Wall Street who escaped unscathed while the rest of us wait for an end to the Great Recession. Spitzer, when Attorney General, took on the big boys and won, and never backed down rhetorically or otherwise. This is a platform you can talk about.

But he did some other things that will make his re-emergence more difficult than the Sanford or Weiner efforts.

As governor, he was a self-described "steamroller" and tough guy, who yelled and bullied and threatened folks who were in his way, who used state police to pursue political rivals and presided over a dysfunctional government. I experienced the full-throated screaming and bullying myself, when we had a disagreement about an arcane legal issue when I was in the NY Legislature and he was Attorney General. It was memorable, disagreeable, unnecessary and concerning. These were not behaviors that would benefit from expanded power and position.

This leaves Spitzer with twice the problems of Weiner or Sanford. He first will have to deal with personal behaviors even more bizarre than those of his comrades in sin. Not easy, but not impossible. But then he will have to establish that he has mended his ways on the bullying/yelling front (harder) or that New York City needs a steamroller to run its pension systems and audit the mayor (impossible). A governing style redolent of Washington gridlock and the politics of personal destruction do not have a lot of fans among the liberal Democratic primary voters of New York. His opponent, the Borough President of Manhattan Scott Stringer, has the record, funding and establishment support to make the case that Spitzer is precisely what New York does not need.

Spitzer can massively self-fund, has an anti-Wall Street record people know and like, and starts with a nine-point lead in the first polls. He'll have to show a little humility and warmth, not his strong suit.

Stringer will not talk about hookers and hypocrisy, but will talk about restoring competence and civility to public life, the downside of governing by steamroller, and his own long record as a social progressive.

Can Spitzer's combination of money and ferocity overcome nasty personal failure? Probably. Can he also overcome a self-created public persona marked by conflict and vituperation? Much harder. New York voters are indeed forgiving of private peccadilloes. But redemption for public sins may not come as easily as Spitzer first imagined.