Eliot Spitzer resigns

I read liberal blogs defending Spitzer and spinning conspiracy theories about his downfall, and all I can think is "Really? You really want to hitch your wagon to this fallen star?" Why on earth? They were investigating him for a perfectly legitimate reason: he had a suspicious pattern of withdrawals from his bank account, and the Feds are supposed to keep an eye on that sort of thing in people who are elected to public office, because we all have a legitimate public interest in clamping down on official corruption. I think "structuring" and "money-laundering" charges are repugnant. The Mann act is garbage. Prostitution, drugs, and arranging homosexual liasons should be legal, though the airports have a perfect right--and good reason--to keep it out of the restrooms. But Eliot Spitzer was caught doing something that, regardless of its moral status, is in fact illegal, and which, moreover, he was more than happy to prosecute others for engaging in. (Though to be fair, since he only went after the purveyors, perhaps he somehow genuinely believe that the johns did nothing wrong in buying what they were selling.) Yes, he did so because it was his job to uphold the laws of the state of New York. Call me crazy, but as the governor, I think it may also have been his responsibility to follow them.

To be sure, many people--including, yes, me--are taking glee in Spitzer's downfall even though we think all his actions should be legal. There you are: having people you disagree with revealed as stunning hypocrites is emotionally satisfying. Plus there's a positive side (I mean, beyond New York State possibly getting a decent governor). If this makes everyone rethink our nation's ridiculous prostitution laws, Eliot Spitzer will finally have made a lasting positive contribution to his country.

But I also think that many of the reasons people are defending him--that he was a good governor and took on Wall Street--are fundamentally wrong. Eliot Spitzer was a terrible AG, and a terrible governor. He had even more difficulty than Rudy in understanding that the executive office does not simply confer more power than that of prosecutor, but different power; he treated those who disagreed with him as perps. His reform agenda died on the vine, and no, not just because of Republican obstructionism; he had vast troubles building coalitions, which is why no one is offering him any sort of public support, not even of the tepid "family tragedy, let's move on" variety: the man has no friends in Albany. And that's because he is, at heart, a petty tyrant. Sometimes you need a petty tyrant--Rudy did good things for New York before he went totally off the rails. But Eliot Spitzer's agenda was not fighting crime and taking on out-of-control unions; he was trying to build, not destroy. For that, you need help.

His attacks on Wall Street, meanwhile, were more about grabbing headlines than catching criminals. Some of the things he took on were real abuses, like the disgusting abuse of equity research and retail networks to pump up the stocks of investment banking clients. Others were much more dubious--a pointless-seeming war against insurance brokers for wrongs that were at best trivial. Some of his more bizarre prosecutions, and the weird settlements he demanded, made it clear that he didn't have the understanding of markets to effectively be the financial regulator he set himself up as.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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