First of all, the sex. As Brian says, sexual indiscretions are usually not very high on the list of rotten things a politician can do:
Americans, to some great extent, have internalized this cartoonish idea that politicians ought to be policy-making and policy-enforcing robots, but they almost never seem to bring the hammer down unless a politician errs in some extremely frivolous way. Some senators and congressmen, it's worth pointing out, take legislative action to settle personal vendettas as a matter of routine. Some take bribes, both real and de facto. Others see prostitutes. If I had to pick, I know which “oops” I'd rather catch my elected official in–the only one, it turns out, that's likely to put an entire career in public service at risk.
The fact that it was a prostitution ring rather than, say, a betting ring or a check-kiting scheme, gives the story a good bit more sizzle. But I don't think it changes the substance of the problem.
Certainly, sexual hypocrisy is a particularly harsh embarassment; ask Larry Craig, David Vitter, or Ted Haggard. But wouldn't social conservatives do better to adopt a “There but for the grace of God go I” attitude towards such indiscretions in order to keep their guys around, and in power? Can one live the life of a libertine and still support an agenda of maximal sexual repression? Vitter says: Just watch me!
But in the case of progressives, where maximal sexual repression is not a platform plank, how much less reason to be concerned. Think of the great public careers that would have been cut short, disabled or exploded if all their sexual secrets had come out: Martin Luther King, JFK, possibly FDR … (Gandhi's quasi-sexual behavior did indeed become an issue.)
Democrats have suffered rather more from hypocrisy-phobia, partly because insinuations of such are easy to trump-up. Is John Edwards a hypocrite for advocating for the poor, while getting expensive haircuts and living in a fancy house? Is Al Gore a hypocrite for talking up the dangers of global warming while sucking up a fair amount of energy for his Tennessee home? Whatever, right? Aren't these awfully peculiar questions? In tacking global warming or poverty, it's our policy that actually matters. But the old lefty saw The personal is political so often is made into a cheap rhetorical kick-me sign to be affixed to the back of anyone who thinks we should aspire to something beyond enabling sheer social Darwinism.
Think about another recent example of hypocrisy: John McCain — self-professed scourge of special interests — is, uh, chummy with lobbyists, has them run his campaign, lets them run their business from his campaign. And yet, there's McCain-Feingold, on the books. As a corrective to the gush of soft-money influence, it empowers (relatively speaking) the grassroots. It's not perfect, but it's something, and it has a real effect, IMO.
Not in spite of, but because McCain claims to be better than the rest — and occasionally is — does his coziness with lobbyists become something noteworthy. If we had a candidate Fred Thompson (for instance) — a clear, unapologetic and obvious shill for wealthy interests — no one would notice. The only reason anyone made note of Mitt Romney's closeness with lobbyists was because he foolishly denied that lobbyists were running his campaign when in fact, one was. Had he taken the brazen Hillary Clinton route and said essentially “lobbyists are people, too”, end of story. And he probably wouldn't have suffered because of it.
Spitzer's popularity did not happen in a vacuum. There was a palpable public demand for someone to apply the rule of law to the great and powerful, who so often seemed to get away with whatever they wanted. It is certainly no coincidence that Spitzer made his name during the Bush/Enron years, when that kind of corrective — from the SEC or EPA, say — was unlikely to come from the federal government. Spitzer became a legendary AG due to his combative style and willingness to use the tool of embarassment towards the purpose of corporate transparency, lawfulness, and reform.
The Spitzer agenda and mandate live on in New York. You can't win 70% of the vote on personality alone; there's a public consensus that Albany had to change. Former governor's-punk-kid Andrew Cuomo has adopted the Spitzer MO in the Attorney General's job, continuing to fill the void in federal law enforcement — and has even turned his sights on Spitzer himself.
Spitzer-ism — a set of expectations about how government ought to work — is bigger than Spitzer himself. The promise he represented is going to be too big for many New Yorkers to give up easily. Yeah, he had to go. But only because his capacity to govern was so compromised. If he were actually able to effectively push for Clean Elections, say, while simultaneously defending himself legally … well, why not? Is it theoretically possible for a governor to call for a more honest and effective government, even while dropping a few bucks on illegal sex?
I'm a heck of a lot less interested in politicians as personalities, their human foibles and failings, their hypocrisies; and a lot more interested in what they accomplish. Good luck to Gov. David Paterson, and long live Spitzerism.