Revelations that New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was a regular customer of a high end prostitution ring has shocked veterans of the state's famously partisan politics and led to immediate calls for his resignation (read Michael Powell and Mike McIntire's analysis piece in today's NYTimes).
The exposure of the Governor's appetite for paid sex is different then the scandals that have swirled around American politicians caught in adulterous affairs for one simple reason. Most Americans do not consider adultery a crime anymore (although it remains one in many states), while patronizing a prostitute is.
Spitzer's came to power along the path that has become well marked for leadership in the era of governing through crime. As a prosecutor and later Attorney General, he made a reputation for being a fierce antagonist of crime wherever it lay. Indeed, his reputation as a reformer who could change Albany's fatally gridlocked political system was largely based on his ability to use crime war rhetoric against the rich and powerful in business and politics (rather than directing it mostly against the deviant and marginal which is the more favored strategy, see, for example Pete Wilson or George W. Bush as governors).
As I note in chapter 2 of Governing through Crime, the enormous power of crime to lift the authority of executives goes along with tremendous vulnerability on anything that looks like crime. President Clinton's sexual tryst was legal, but his attempts to lie about it almost cost him the job. Now Governor Spitzer has found the steep backside to the mountain of crime war.
The real shame is that breaking through the gridlock that prevents any substantial governing project from being launched whether in Albany or Sacramento is the key to opening up new modes of governing less locked to crime and Spitzer appeared to be someone capable of turning his crime warrior capital into such change.
The Governor will almost certainly have to resign, but perhaps the very magnitude of that result from what all must concede to be a marginal crime (compared to say bribery or drunk driving) will hopefully produce some head scratching. Is it better that all our politicians must spend their nights entertaining lobbyists with their attentions in order to raise campaign funds, than that some pay for sex in high end prostitution rings (probably ones with better working conditions and less exploitation than many)?