Friday, April 06, 2007

Spitzer no steamroller, but an engine of change

Newsday Editorial

Another interesting look at the recent state budget process......isn't it a shame that this editorial is encouraging game playing with the order for Eliot to look better......geeeeeeez...........andy

Maybe next time Gov. Eliot Spitzer would be well advised to compare himself to The Little Engine That Could instead of a steamroller.Let me explain. The talk of Albany these days isn't so much that Spitzer, on his first try, got a state budget passed on time or that he made real progress in taming two Albany monsters - the wasteful state Medicaid system and the wholly irrational school aid formula.Rather, he's being criticized for not being the steamroller he predicted he would be because he compromised with Senate Republicans over his proposals. He also has been lambasted for succumbing to the same "three men in a room" secret negotiations that have characterized dysfunction in Albany over the years. Spitzer had promised, "Day one, everything changes." But in the end it didn't seem to change all that much. At least not compared with the expectations Spitzer created with his lofty and sometimes spicy rhetoric. That highlights what may be the Democratic governor's most fundamental mistake in his first few months in office: He didn't play the expectations game well. Like it or not, politics is often as much a game of perceptions as a matter of reality. Spitzer set an impossibly high bar for himself, and that's what he is being measured against. You can admire his ambition and his determination, but he's got a way to go in political savvy. He would do well to take a page out of the James Baker playbook. The former chief of staff and Treasury secretary for Ronald Reagan and secretary of State for the first President Bush, was a master of the expectations game. In both his public statements and in background briefings for reporters, he would always dampen down expectations on whatever project he was working on - whether it was a tax reform bill or Mideast peace negotiations - and then, when he did better than expected, he'd look like a hero.The reality is that Spitzer has made more progress in reforming Medicaid and aid to education than any governor in decades. And he did it with a State Senate controlled by Republicans. Split legislatures (the Democrats control the Assembly) almost guarantee stalemate. And they also force backroom negotiations so that fundamentally different positions and interests can be negotiated in a face-saving way. The alternative is that nothing gets accomplished. I'm not suggesting that Spitzer shouldn't have proposed a bold agenda or that as a candidate he should not have promised how he would change things once he was in power. He asked for a mandate from the voters, and he received a big one, with almost 70 percent of the vote. Too many politicians avoid bold positions in campaigns, hoping not to alienate any voting bloc, and then have no mandate to govern. But once in office the newly elected official must understand the difference between campaigning and governing. As my colleague Lawrence Levy repeatedly pointed out to me, Spitzer might believe he has a mandate for his agenda, but almost every one of the Republican state senators who objected to many of his proposals was elected with a 60- to 70-percent majority. New York is a very big, very diverse state, and the different interests of upstate, downstate and city are reflected in the Legislature's composition. Should Spitzer have dug in his heels and used the pressure of a late budget to drive a better deal? In the past, nothing symbolized the dysfunction of state government more than its inability to pass a budget on time. And, besides, the budget that would have been passed weeks or months later would not have been that much different from the one passed this week. No doubt Spitzer has learned something about the limits of his power. Hence my suggestion that he trade the steamroller analogy for The Little Engine That Could. Then we all might have a greater appreciation of how hard it is to chug up the mountain.
Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

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