Today begins the aftermath of Eliiot Spitzer's fall.
In his statement, Eliot Spitzer notably didn't announce his resignation. Rather, he said the following:
"I do not believe that politics, in the long run, is about individuals. It is about ideas, the public good and doing what is best for the state of New York."
Spitzer may simply be waiting to resign, as doing so could be one of the conditions of a plea agreement. As a former Attorney General of New York, he presumably is well positioned to understand criminal law and the most advantageous way to handle this problem.
But his wording above is raising speculation that he may not plan to resign. If that's true, it's part of a new and troubling pattern in American political life. It's not a partisan thing; Larry Craig's refusal to resign was another manifestation of it.
The whole idea, pioneered by you-know-who and enabled by you-know-who-else, is that illicit sexual behavior and the scandals resulting therefrom can be brazened out by the insistence that they are irrelevant to the discharge of public duties. As I argue in my book, it's all part of a new ethical calculus concluding that -- uniquely in the constellation of virtues -- sexual morality is a subjective and purely personal matter that's of relevance only to "religious" people (or else prurient and "judgmental" ones), even when it impacts the public.
All of us are human, all of us are sinners, no one is perfect. Certainly, there but for the grace of God go any of us. But that doesn't mean that there should be no standards. In particular, it's unfortunate if and when public officials conclude that sexual behavior that's deeply disgraceful (not to mention illegal) doesn't merit resignation. It degrades our culture, makes others complicit in condoning conduct that shouldn't be condoned, and normalizes behavior that's wrong.
No doubt it's a sad day for Governor Spitzer -- long a Democrat shining light -- and his family. They merit our compassion on a personal level. But it's appropriate and right that the Governor resign.
Whether Spitzer resigns or not, the Democratic Party will have difficulty portraying itself as the party of choice to fight corruption. Donald Lambro at The Washington Times put it this way:
The accusations that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer patronized a high-priced call girl tarnishes, if not undermines, the Democrats' attempt to portray the Republican Party as the party of corruption in this year's elections, even as it probably ends his own political career.
The stunning confession yesterday by Mr. Spitzer, who had built a national law-enforcement reputation by prosecuting corrupt financiers on Wall Street, turns him into the most prominent political figure in the country to emerge in a recent string of personal and political scandals. Those scandals had seemed to catch more Republicans and led to steep losses for the party in the 2006 elections.
"I don't know how he survives this," said New York political pollster John Zogby.
"Real men make real mistakes, but he never allowed for that when he was prosecuting people on Wall Street. He's wide open to charges of hypocrisy," Mr. Zogby said.
Even the firmly leftist New York Times isn't buying the argument that Spitzer's pecadillo is only a private matter:
While few clients of prostitutes face criminal charges, law-enforcement affidavits raise at least the possibility of criminal charges based on transporting a woman across state lines for prostitution. Mr. Spitzer’s own record of prosecuting such cases gives him scant breathing room. As state attorney general, he prosecuted prostitution rings with enthusiasm — pointing out that they are often involved in human trafficking, drug trafficking and money laundering. In 2004 on Staten Island, Mr. Spitzer was vehement in his outrage over 16 people arrested in a high-end prostitution ring.
In other words, Spitzer looks like what he is: A politician who has aggressively enforced one set of rules against everyone else, while ignoring those same rules himself. That, in turn, will put a real crimp in the Democratic Party agenda for New York and possibly its agenda for the entire nation -- even more so if Spitzer sticks around in the governor's office without paying any apparent public price for his crime. Hence, the New York Times musters real outrage against Spitzer -- not on moral grounds, but on practical ones.
For me, the moral argument is sufficient by itself. The man has broken the most solemn public and private vow he ever made, to the direct harm of the persons closest to him. Is such frank dishonesty and lack of trustworthiness a trait we want in our leaders? Yes, it happens, but should it happen without consequences or so much as a public blink of an eye? There is ample forgiveness in the world, but usually there are consequences and remorse first.
If it stopped there, Spitzer's moral lapse would be a good reason not to vote for him in the future, but not necessarily grounds for demanding his immediate resignation from public office. But it doesn't stop there. If the allegations against him are true, Spitzer has also violated his own state's laws and possibly federal laws. Demonstrated disregard for the law is not an acceptable trait in a leader charged with enforcement of the laws.
Arguing that laws against prostitution should not exist, as some have, is perfectly fine -- but has no relevance to where Mr. Spitzer stands today. Remember, Spitzer aggressively enforced the very same laws he himself has allegedly violated. He is not a libertarian; quite the opposite.
It comes down to this: Are we a nation of laws, or of men? Do have one set of laws for the Eliot Spitzers of the world, and another set of laws for those who are less powerful, or less wealthy, or less connected to the Democratic Party?
If Spitzer stays in office, you know the answer. I think America is still far better than that.