Never Resign

Reviewing Client 9, Felix Salmon speculates that “[m]aybe Spitzer’s problem was that he was never very good at cultivating powerful friends who could protect and support him — a skill that another executive horndog, Bill Clinton, has in spades.”

I think the contrasting fates of Spitzer and guys like Clinton or Senator David Vitter (R-LA) shows that Spitzer’s problem was much simpler than that — he resigned. When a reasonably popular public official is hit with a scandal of a personal nature, the natural immediate first reaction of his same-party colleagues is to want to get rid of him. After all, no reason this guy should be a millstone around all of our necks. That leads to an initial torrent of criticism from friendly-ish sources and a wave of pressure to resign. But if you resist that first wave, apologizing for your conduct but refusing to apologize for your years of public service and highlighting the pernicious special interests who’d love to see you brought low, you basically flip the dynamic. Now you’re definitely going to be a millstone around everyone’s necks so the question becomes how heavy a stone?

Suddenly all your same-party colleagues have an incentive to defend you and to attack your enemies. Suddenly an incumbent Republican in Louisiana is just another guy with a safe seat. An incumbent President presiding over an economic boom is super-popular. And I bet an incumbent Democratic governor in New York could have cruised to re-election.

After all, at this point Spitzer is basically rehabilitated in all the ways that count. His new primetime TV show may or may not succeed, but that will turn on his merits as a TV commentator. It’s not going to fail because people can’t “forgive” him or whatever. And by the same token, were he still governor he’d be struggling with the economic problems afflicting incumbent politicians everywhere but fundamentally he’d be getting judged on the same basic criteria as everyone else. It’s different for a mere candidate (like John Edwards, say) but my advice to any incumbent with a reasonably strong political position who’s suddenly wracked by a sex scandal is simple — don’t quit. And make it clear to all your political allies that you’re not going to quit, so they’d better all start thinking about how to rally around you.