POLITICS
03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Spitzer Specter May Haunt More Than Clinton

Another day removed from Tuesday night's debate, and Hillary Clinton is still the focus of fallout because of her response to the issue of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's drivers' license plan, and the issue of illegal immigration in general. Peep the relevant heds: the Wall Street Journal riffs on "Clintonesque" "doublespeak" in an article titled, "Hilliam Clinton." Newsweek describes Clinton as leaving "A Drop of Blood in the Water." Politico notes her competitors attacking a "crack in the armor."

But what of the other Democratic candidates and their position on Spitzer? Adam Nagourney noted yesterday that "among those opposing it were Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut; Senator Barack Obama of Illinois supported it." But, in the context of the debate, there was no "among" -- Dodd was the only candidate that specifically came out against Spitzer's plan. Obama was the only one who specifically supported it (and his more succinctly stated version of Clinton's own position went unchallenged). John Edwards weighed in on the quality of Clinton's response, but was allowed to escape without advancing his own position Tuesday night.

So though Clinton finds herself facing the fusillade, it's worth asking: is this matter a looming issue for the Democratic field as a whole? The American Prospect's Garance Franke-Ruta thinks so, saying, "Perhaps I am not giving my fellow Americans enough credit, however, it seems to me that the Democratic presidential field last night just committed suicide en masse, with Hillary Clinton the last to swallow the poison by holding out until this afternoon to endorse New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal."

GFR cites a noteworthy study taken by Democracy Corps, which "finds that the issue of unprotected borders/illegal immigration is the No. 1 issue cited by independents." The big pull: "Voters want control of the borders and workplace and recreating an immigration system that works and oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants - positions supported by about two-thirds of the country. For them, that is the starting point, the common sense of the issue. If political leaders do not start there, they are not likely to be heard on other steps."

But can a case be made for the Spitzer plan on the merits? Some have tried to make it, most notably former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who offered the following endorsement:

The United States needs a reliable and secure personal identification system, with appropriate civil liberties protections, to insure that we know who it is that is being allowed in to sensitive facilities and who is engaging in other controlled activities. Such a system will also reduce the billions of dollars of loss annually in identity theft and related fraud. The Real ID Act passed by Congress, if implemented, will form a basis for such a system based on drivers' licenses.

However, the federal government has not yet issued guidelines to states on how to implement that law. Even when the guidelines are issued, states will have many years to implement them. Some states have already announced their intention to ignore the law because it is an unfunded federal mandate, forcing significant new expenditures on the states. Thus, the fate of the Real ID Act is uncertain.

In the interim, states should act to register immigrants, legal and illegal, who use our roadways as New York is doing. From a law enforcement and security perspective, it is far preferable for the state to know who is living in it and driving on its roads, and to have their photograph and their address on file than to have large numbers of people living in our cities whose identity is totally unknown to the government.

Also backing Spitzer's plan was 9-11 Commissioner Slade Gorton, who called the Spitzer plan "secure and sensible," and former New York City police commissioner (and current LAPD Chief) William J. Bratton.