The New York Times endorsing Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer for New York City comptroller instead of Eliot Spitzer today was completely predictable. “Spitzer’s bid to recycle himself by running for New York City comptroller is unnerving on many levels,” the Times editorialized last month. Lawrence Downes, the editorial board member who is spearheading the board’s endorsing process this cycle, slammed Spitzer in a signed blog post as “a man who has opted out of the city’s campaign-finance system, choosing to use his own fortune instead of public funds to propel himself into office.” Mark Green, the former public advocate who has sought a Times endorsement seven times (including for mayor, senator, and congressman), told me last week of the board, “They’re pro-choice, anti-Albany, pro-campaign finance, and anti-scandal” (although regarding campaign finance, they make an exception if your name is Michael Bloomberg). Spitzer, of course, did a terrible job in Albany as governor; is spending his own personal fortune to try to win election (over which the Times wrung its hands in a separate editorial); and you may have read about the scandal once or twice. “You have a smart, high-minded, moderate liberal audience, who is not easily swayed by extremes of personality or position,” Green added. A very tough crowd for Spitzer.
What makes this morning’s endorsement of Stringer something other than strictly dog-bites-man news is that the endorsement itself is so odd, self-abnegating, and, frankly, repressed. You want to urge the Times to go to a shrink. The endorsement was the bottom-most of four editorials today, less relevant, apparently, than the scourge of doping racehorses (I kid you not). Its praise for Stringer is damningly faint: he “would make a fine New York City comptroller”; “Stringer has been effective in every political job he’s had, and we have every reason to expect that to continue if he is elected comptroller;” he was a “voice” for civil rights and the poor as Manhattan borough president, though it is not clear how, exactly.
It is obvious that the board is at least as passionately anti-Spitzer as it is pro-Stringer. Which is, like Comptroller Stringer, “fine,” except the case it makes against Spitzer is confounding. The board writes:
Mr. Stringer’s opponent, Eliot Spitzer, has intellect and cunning, but he lacks the qualities critical for this job. Mr. Spitzer entered the race at the last minute, seemingly for no reason except to thrust himself back into the limelight and to offer his services again as sheriff of Wall Street. But that is a problem: it’s the same character, in a different play, on the wrong stage.
If the board knows which qualities are critical for the comptroller’s job, it ain’t squealing. But if part of why Spitzer entered the race is “to offer his services again as sheriff of Wall Street,” well, why is that a bad thing? Even Spitzer’s most merciless detractors, at least among liberals, tend to applaud Spitzer’s rep as “sheriff of Wall Street” from when he was state attorney general. (Indeed, many accuse Spitzer of entering the race for a third reason: To win a launching pad to Gracie Mansion. But the Times doesn’t mention this!) Why is comptroller—which, unlike governor, is not a job requiring massive administrative skills, and in Spitzer’s vision could be, like state attorney general, concerned with policing Wall Street—“the wrong stage”? The board’s answer is that Spitzer lost the skills he had as sheriff when he turned in a disastrous gubernatorial performance and resigned following a prostitution scandal. That argument is a total non sequitur.
My favorite bizarre anti-Spitzer argument comes in the opening paragraph: “In this turbulent election season,” the Times writes, “we don’t need another celebrity office seeker.” But … Spitzer already is a celebrity office seeker! You’re about two months late with this! Perhaps the Times hopes it can remedy this unfortunate situation, of not one but two celebrity office seekers, by endorsing Spitzer’s opponent, and, so dispiriting Spitzer, forcing him to gracefully bow out of the race? That, however, would be a curious decision on Spitzer’s part, since Spitzer is up 19 points among likely voters in the latest poll, with majority support.
Ultimately, this editorial says little about the relative merits of Stringer and Spitzer and much about the Times’ lingering High German finickiness. They do not like that Spitzer went to hookers and that he is spending his own money—and they should just say so. Compare it, for instance, to another NYC paper’s comptroller endorsement today. The New York Post’s cover depicts Spitzer in jacket, tie, boxers, and, of course, socks. And it reads: “SOCK IT TO SPITZER! The Post Endorses Stringer. Because Eliot should be indicted, not in office.” 16 words. I endorse the Post’s editorial over the Times’.