If recent history is any guide, Eliot Spitzer's chances of becoming governor of New York next year are greatly enhanced by the presence of the words "attorney general" on his résumé. Since 2002, Democrats nationwide have won 18 open seats for governor or senator. Six of the winners had served either as state attorney general or United States attorney. Two others were prosecutors before entering politics. Not even mayors or congressmen were as well represented.
Prosecutors are in a natural position to project toughness, which helps Democratic candidates counter the soft-on-crime reputation that their party, rightly or not, bears. Moreover, middle-class white voters tend to desert Democrats when they seem beholden to organized groups like teachers' unions or trial lawyers. These same voters tend to equate prosecutorial experience with independence from special interests, according to Celinda Lake, a pollster for Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona. Lake says this helps explain how Napolitano, a former U.S. attorney and Democratic attorney general, fared unusually well among white men en route to winning the governor's mansion in 2002.
To see that Spitzer could benefit from a similar dynamic next year, you need only consider the polling data. The Democrats' perceived lack of toughness is one reason they typically fare significantly better among women than men. But perceptions of Spitzer, the archetypal enforcer, differ starkly from those of other New York Democrats, even popular ones like Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer. All three politicians have approval ratings in the neighborhood of 60 percent among the state's voters. But where Schumer and Clinton poll anywhere from 2 to 30 points better among women than among men, Spitzer routinely posts a 4- to 14-point gap in the other direction.
Spitzer, of course, isn't simply the beneficiary of this prosecutorial model; he helped create it. The attention surrounding his investigations of Wall Street revealed a popular hunger for taking on corporate fraud. Perhaps more important, the investigations highlighted the appeal of standing up for the ordinary investor - the middle-class person saving for retirement or for a child's education - against entrenched business interests. And so, not surprisingly, Spitzer has been imitated by other attorneys general. Thomas F. Reilly of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who are leading contenders to become governor of their respective states, are conducting their own investigations of insurance brokerages, an industry Spitzer has embarrassed with revelations of wrongdoing. While serving as Colorado's attorney general, Ken Salazar joined Spitzer in an investigation of Janus Capital Group, the Denver-based mutual fund. He went on to win a U.S. Senate seat in a state that George W. Bush carried.
Another measure of Spitzer's influence is the virulence of his critics. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which frequently rails against "the Lord High New York Executioner," has complained that Spitzer "attacks entire businesses and business practices, whether or not he can prove any individual culpability in court." Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, views Spitzer as little more than a shakedown artist who extorts settlements from companies under the threat of indictment - more Alabama sheriff than New York prosecutor. This also accurately describes the sentiment in some corners of Wall Street, which could end up funneling tens of millions of dollars toward Spitzer's likely opponent next year, William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor who now lives in New York.
But while Spitzer's approach - call it Spitzerism - has infuriated Republican critics and helped individual Democrats win statewide office, so far it hasn't meant much to the Democratic Party as a whole. The Democrats, after all, remain shut out of power in Washington. Which raises a question that more and more Democrats are asking: is Spitzerism useful only in the narrow context of Democratic law-enforcement officials running for higher office? Or is there, lurking somewhere in Spitzer's experience, an approach that Democrats around the country could mine for political success?
Since his early days as attorney general, Spitzer has practiced a brand of prosecutorial politics that is less about securing indictments of evildoers than about shining a light on structural defects in corporate institutions.
In 1999, his first year in office, Spitzer intervened in a case involving a handful of coal-burning power plants in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia. The plants had been exploiting a provision of the Clean Air Act that allowed them to avoid investing in pollution-reducing equipment under the assumption that they would soon be shuttered. Instead, the plants kept expanding, and their emissions contributed to chronic acid rain in states like New York and Connecticut. Spitzer broke a logjam in negotiations between the Northeastern states and the Environmental Protection Agency, on one side, and the power plants on the other by announcing his intention to haul the utility companies into court. Spitzer's lawyers spent six months collecting evidence against the power plants. All in all it looked more like a sting operation than an environmental case. Several of the companies eventually backed down.
This reflected a kind of toughness, but not the kind associated with Rudy Giuliani, with whom Spitzer is often compared. As United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, Giuliani saw white-collar crime as a product of personal immorality, and he went after the perpetrators with relish. Spitzer tends to see wrongdoing as the product of both moral failing and lousy incentives. In Spitzer's mind, the reason the power plants produced too much pollution wasn't that their owners were evil; it was that neither they nor their customers were forced to pay the cost of polluting. Spitzer wasn't looking to put the utility companies out of business. He just wanted the loophole closed.
Politically, this approach has several advantages. Attorneys general are, by definition, law enforcers. But Spitzer expands this template: he casts himself not just as an enforcer of the law per se, but also as an enforcer of a broader social compact between ordinary people and large institutions like government and business.
In this way, Spitzer taps the same themes that worked so well for Bill Clinton. Clinton famously spoke up for "people who work hard and play by the rules." Spitzer styles himself a scourge of people and companies that don't. These are really two sides of the same coin. "It's not an entitlement politics," says David Axelrod, a consultant to Spitzer's 2002 re-election campaign. "It's a fairness politics, a let-everyone-compete-on-the-same-playing-field politics."
Spitzer's actions as attorney general have also avoided a trap Democrats often fall into when they take on business, which is to appear as if they're punishing success. "Voters don't mind people getting rich if they've earned it," says Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster who works closely with labor groups. What does bother voters, Molyneux says, is when the wealthy acquire their riches using opportunities that aren't available to average people. Gene Sperling, the chief economic adviser in the Clinton White House, says that Spitzer grasps this distinction: "The key in the Spitzer message is. . .it's not a populist bashing for the sake of it." It's telling, for example, that Spitzer has so far resisted indicting a single company despite exposing case after case of corruption. (Indeed, to the extent that Spitzer has critics on the left, they mostly complain that he doesn't punish companies aggressively enough.)
To understand how Spitzerism could fit into the future of the Democratic Party, you have to look at a debate that has been raging within the party over the last five years. The conventional wisdom on Clinton's presidency was that it marked the return of Democrats as the party of the middle class - particularly the white middle class. (Although in 1992 Clinton didn't improve on Michael Dukakis's share of the white middle-class vote.) Since then, the Democrats have suffered a series of disappointments. Al Gore lost the white middle class by 15 points in 2000, according to Ruy Teixeira, a political scientist at the Center for American Progress. Then Kerry lost it by an even larger margin in 2004 - 22 points. A recent report by Third Way, a center-left advocacy group based in Washington, points out that, in current dollars, the income level below which whites were more likely to vote Democratic in presidential elections dropped to $23,300 in 2004 from $25,300 in 2000; in 1996, that threshold was $49,700. Above that whites were more likely to vote Republican.
Today, not surprisingly, the party's major preoccupation is figuring out how to reconnect with these voters. "There is. . .kind of a macro battle within the party about how we talk to middle-class voters," says Anthony D. Weiner, the congressman from New York who recently ran in the city's mayoral primary, "how to show we're the party, economically, of the middle class." In addition to groups like Third Way that have sprung up to address this question, congressional Democrats have created a group, within the Senate's Democratic Policy Committee, that will generate ideas specifically to appeal to middle-class voters.
Spitzer surely understands that he is operating in this context. "It was the Democratic Party historically that did so much to create the middle class," he said in a speech to the National Press Club this past January. "Hopefully, protecting the middle class. . .will be a bigger part of our message in the future." He has unquestionably influenced the debate. Democratic Policy Committee staff members watch his actions closely and have had periodic conversations with his pollster, Jef Pollock. Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way, says that Spitzer has tapped into a "political goldmine" and could "help lead the Democrats out of the political wilderness."
The problem is that Republicans are adept at persuading middle-class voters that their economic interests actually align with the interests of big business. So, for example, Republicans argue that large malpractice awards that hurt insurance companies also drive up health-care costs for ordinary people. Or that safety regulations that make factories less profitable also cost jobs. More recently, Republicans have argued that taxes and regulations on corporations hurt middle-class people in another way: by decreasing the value of their shares of stock, which an increasing number of middle-class people own. (More than 50 percent of voters own stock in some form.) And there's apparently an appeal to this. John Zogby, an independent pollster, has shown that among just about every demographic group, investors are more likely to vote Republican than noninvestors are.
Spitzer's strength has been to tap another, overlooked interest of this "investor class": in addition to owning shares of companies, investors are also consumers of financial information. Truthful financial reporting by public corporations helps investors make informed decisions; without it, the capitalist enterprise ultimately unravels. Spitzer recognizes the Republican vulnerability on this point. The most obvious example is his investigation of Merrill Lynch, the brokerage firm whose analysts were found to have promoted stocks they knew to be worthless. Republicans "portray our efforts as bureaucratic meddling in free markets," Spitzer wrote in the The New Republic last November. "But we did not investigate Wall Street because we were troubled by large institutions making a lot of money; we took action to stop a blatant fraud that was ripping off small investors."
Spitzer seems to point the way in helping the party appeal to these voters. "His advocacy on behalf of a growing and new class of investors could have wide applicability," says Howard Wolfson, a former Democratic Congressional strategist and an adviser to Hillary Clinton. Even some Republicans concede that middle-class investors value regulations designed to make the stock market transparent. "Obviously investors want to make sure they are protected, that they have all information they need to make intelligent investment decisions," says Matthew Dowd, the top pollster for the Bush campaign in 2000 and 2004 and a student of the investor class. But Dowd argues that this is a strikingly narrow platform. Some people will vote for a candidate based on his opposition to, say, abortion and gay marriage, but would anyone vote for a candidate because of his position on regulating 10-K filings?
The effect of stock ownership operates on a broader level, Dowd argues, imbuing investors with a greater appreciation for private enterprise and individual choice. This, at least, is the theory behind the Bush administration's call for an "ownership society," in which people, by virtue of home ownership and initiatives like Social Security privatization and health savings accounts, come to rely on themselves more and government less. Over time, according to Dowd, this makes them less sympathetic to taxes and regulations. "People have mistakenly said, 'Target the investor class,' " Dowd says. "You can't target the investor class. It's more that you have to. . .make sure you don't get out of sync with a majority of the population."
But Spitzer's emphasis on making companies more accountable could have broader resonance than Dowd assumes. It speaks to a widely felt anxiety on the part of the investing middle class: the sense that their financial situation is less stable than ever before. Jacob Hacker, a Yale University political scientist, found that the income of the average family was about twice as volatile in 2000 as it was in the 1970's - a result of rising health and education costs, the increasing rate at which people change jobs and the shift from pensions with guaranteed benefits to 401(k)'s. An increase in volatility tends to make people feel more anxious because of a phenomenon behavioral researchers refer to as loss aversion. People tend to dislike losses of income they already have vastly more than they like gains of equal magnitude.
How does this play out politically? One question on the exit poll in the 2000 presidential election asked respondents who they wanted to see take a larger role in solving the nation's problems - government or business and individuals. According to an analysis by Ruy Teixeira, middle-class voters who owned stock in some form were 5 percentage points more likely to favor a larger role for government than middle-class voters who didn't. One possible implication of this data could be that when politicians like Spitzer go after companies that commit stock-market fraud, middle-class voters don't just see it as a marginal improvement in the quality of the financial information they're getting, as Dowd suggests. They see it as decreasing the chance that their savings will be wiped out.
Even Democrats otherwise skeptical of the breadth of Spitzer's appeal are sympathetic to this approach. Robert Gordon, the chief policy adviser to John Edwards's presidential campaign, worries that Spitzer's efforts on behalf of shareholders are too complicated for most voters to appreciate. Nonetheless, he argues that there is much to be gained from broadening the discussion to encompass middle-class economic anxieties in the way Spitzer has hinted at. "Probably the most promising angle is to talk about middle-class security, prosperity," he says.
Cowan of Third Way is less coy. "At the heart of our economic issues in the next couple of generations, as we continue to globalize, risk is going to be the defining concept," he says. "I think that if Spitzer is able to translate the particular work he did around risk associated with investment in the stock market. . .into a larger narrative for Democrats about risk in the 21st century" - not just stock-market risk but risk associated with pensions, health care, employment - that "could help forge the bond with the middle class that we've lost."
Of course, a message about anxiety might backfire, playing into the stereotype of Democrats as naysayers and pessimists. As Republicans point out, risk can be best understood as the price of making money. Americans may dislike losses more than they like gains, but they still like gains quite a bit. Sperling, the author of "The Pro-Growth Progressive," which will be published early next month, shares these concerns. "When progressives latch onto both policy and politically attractive negative messages. . .without a more positive investor-wealth-creation counterpart," he says, "it can just make it look like we're the guys here to critique the market as opposed to champion your ability to invest." Sperling suggests that Democrats not only embrace laws designed to safeguard pensions but also create tax incentives and subsidies to help middle-class people invest for themselves.
Spitzer, as it happens, is naturally inclined to strike this balance. One of his favorite phrases is "capital formation." He frequently invokes the word "opportunity," as when he described his investigations of Wall Street as an effort to ensure "that every investor enjoys the same opportunity to profit that the insiders have." If you had to distill Spitzerism into a single expression, it might very well be something like: "Making risk work for the middle class." Getting that message across may be just as important to the Democratic Party as it is to Spitzer himself.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.
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