Spitzer's Return: For Better and For Worse

Margaret Carlson was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about Eliot Spitzer's return to politics. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Ramesh: The last time we were talking about politicians making comebacks after a sex scandal, Margaret, you were more tolerant than me -- which is probably fitting given my conservatism. Reading your column on Eliot Spitzer, though, I got the impression that you've moved a bit in my direction. Has Spitzer proved too much for you?

Margaret: Under ordinary circumstances, Spitzer would be too much for me. He's the Democrats' Rudy Giuliani, who relishes coming down hard with a "red hot poker" on the bad guys. And he violated the very law he was enforcing by paying prostitutes. And he's self-righteous. But these aren't ordinary circumstances. Wall Street is still having its way with us, and no one has proved a match for the Masters of the Universe. Look at SAC's Steve Cohen, about to be let off the hook for what most of us see as an obvious case of insider trading. Main Street is still reeling from the behavior of the financiers out of the Gilded Age, and I'm willing to give the old Sheriff a pass to come and round them up.

Ramesh: Our former colleague Josh Barro made a case for Spitzer too, which amounts to the idea that he'd be the first high-profile comptroller in the history of the world and could be a check on the interest groups that would otherwise seem to have a lock on New York City's governance after the next mayoral election. I like that case better than the "Spitzer, scourge-of-Wall-Street" idea because it seems more in keeping with the duties of the job he's running for. Unfortunately, it seems like reforming the country's financial markets from a municipal post is what he's most interested in. You mentioned, Margaret, that he was vindictive and a hypocrite (having violated the financial-fraud and prostitution laws he supports). One thing I learned yesterday: He also has a long memory. It was his first day of campaigning, and he mentioned a 2004 article I wrote about him for National Review. He said my critique was mistaken.

Margaret: If only he would mention a piece of mine, I would go collect signatures for him at the Union Square subway stop where, apparently, he only got 12 of the almost 4,000 he needs by Thursday to qualify for the ballot. People with the dogged, relentless, pinched personality of a guy like Spitzer always have long memories when they're asking the rest of us to let bygones be bygones. When I relent for a moment and remember just how awful he is, I see that Republicans have vowed to filibuster the nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, no matter who he or she is. That's the body that is supposed to execute parts of Dodd-Frank, a re-regulation of the financial industry that is already so watered down by lobbyists as to be toothless. The bankers and brokers have thousands of people toiling in the basements of their skyscrapers eating regulators for breakfast, lunch and dinner -- all catered, by the way. That's why I hope Spitzer wins. He can't do everything from the modest office of comptroller, but he is going to do more than the weak sisters now pretending to rein in these folks.

Ramesh: The CFPB is a constitutional monstrosity -- there's got to be a better way to regulate Wall Street than bypassing normal government either by creating new extra-constitutional agencies or by having local officials try to set rules for the national economy. (That was, by the way, the theme of that article of mine that annoyed Spitzer: A state attorney general ought to keep his official activism within his state's borders.) I don't think the comptroller's office has subpoena power, at least. Back to scandal for a minute: Over the weekend Katha Pollitt, the left-wing writer, tweeted that Spitzer and Anthony Weiner wouldn't be able to come back from their disgrace if they weren't white men. I don't usually go in for that sort of analysis -- and some of my best friends are white men -- but I have to say, it sounded pretty plausible.

Margaret: To that I would counter with Marion Barry and, allegedly, Clarence Thomas. Maybe it's men, she means, as women don't usually do this type of thing, not to generalize. In some cases, we need to separate sexual behavior, which looms so large in our tabloid culture as to blot out other behavior that is equally bad, like insider trading and credit-default swaps. Bad sexual behavior hurts the one person and his family, whereas bad financial behavior hurts everyone except the person doing it. From my Yo-Yo Ma column last week, we know I'm overly sentimental. And when faced with remorse, as I was this morning while I was watching "Morning Joe" and still in my PJ's having coffee, I bought Spitzer's answer to a question about whether or how he'd changed. His answer was that he went through "a lot of pain," and "you go through that pain, you change." After that, he couldn't go on. I believe him -- and Ramesh, conservative though you be, I bet you hope he's better. See you next week, when I hope I've changed for the better.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net