If New York Governor Eliot Spitzer resigns (as of this writing he has not), conservatives will be rid of a dedicated and formidable foe. Missteps and minor scandals marred his first term as governor and damaged his approval ratings, but he was by no means incapable of mounting a comeback until Monday brought news of his alleged penchant for pricey prostitutes. Spitzer’s history of hostility to conservative ideas provides a glimpse into what setbacks we might have suffered had he recovered from his first-term funk and persevered along a path that some predicted would take him all the way to the White House.
As New York state attorney general, Spitzer earned a reputation as an enemy of Wall Street for his high-profile lawsuits against the big investment firms. But he was an equally pugnacious opponent of conservative causes and ideas. In 1999, the year after he was elected, Spitzer embarked on a crusade to impose gun control via litigation. First, he joined Clinton secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo in a successful attempt to bully gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson into adopting trigger locks and other changes favored by gun-control advocates. Then he joined the big-city mayors in an unsuccessful lawsuit against gun makers that tried to reclassify guns as a “nuisance.”
In 2002, Spitzer issued dozens of subpoenas targeting crisis-pregnancy centers, which offer counseling and explain alternatives to women considering abortions. Abortion-rights groups had complained that by claiming to provide “abortion alternatives,” these crisis centers were engaged in false advertising. “The charade is that they provide alternatives, when they don’t provide alternatives, they frighten women with horror films about abortion,” the president of Planned Parenthood told the Washington Post at the time. Spitzer, a longtime supporter of abortion rights, followed suit with an investigation and allegations of deceptive business practices, but he was forced to withdraw his subpoenas when the crisis centers moved to quash them.
By 2004, Spitzer was deep into his campaign to clean up Wall Street, and some critics on the right had accused him of going beyond law enforcement to a point where he was effectively creating new regulation through the threat of litigation. In a profile in The Atlantic, Spitzer dismissed these critics: “They reflexively evoke the words ‘free market’ without an understanding of what the term means. I believe in the market as much as anybody, but I believe I understand it better than they do. I understand that a market needs to have rules by which it lives.” Spitzer’s comment missed the point of much of the criticism — that as a state attorney general, he was not the person who should be making the rules.
In September of 2007, his first year as governor, Spitzer angered opponents of amnesty for illegal immigrants when he issued an executive order eliminating legal residency as a requirement for drivers licenses. The move prompted an intense backlash that Spitzer did not have the political capital to withstand. Though he won his gubernatorial race by the largest margin in New York history, Spitzer was by this point damaged by a scandal that involved the improper use of state police to collect information on a Republican state lawmaker. He was forced to rescind the order, but not before declaring its opponents to be aligned with the “rabid right.”
Finally, in what will probably be remembered as his last assault on a conservative idea (not counting his illegal solicitation of prostitution), Spitzer tried to raise taxes on New York state residents. As usual, his method employed a novel legal theory by which online vendors that had not customarily been responsible for collecting state sales tax suddenly would be. News of the scheme broke just before the holidays, however, and the resulting outcry forced Spitzer to postpone implementation of the plan.
An adulatory profile of Spitzer published in a 2002 issue of Time labeled him as a “passionate and partisan Democrat” who “spent a career pushing the law as a tool for social change.” True to this description, Spitzer was a man whose policy goals and the means he used to achieve them stood in opposition to conservative principles. He was, as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru called him in 2004, the most destructive politician in America, and now he appears to have self-destructed.
— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.