Swallowing Spitzer

Hardly a moment after news broke of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s ties to a prostitution ring, speculation began about two women. One was the 5-foot-5, 105-pound, $1,000-an-hour prostitute named Kristen . The other was Hillary Clinton.

Spitzer initially endorsed Clinton back in May, but since then he has been a less-than-enthusiastic supporter. He talked her up on The Colbert Report last month but failed to appear at any campaign stops. During one conference call he held with reporters, he was weirdly off-message , arguing that Obama, of all people, supported his driver’s licenses program. He promised to stump for her ” maybe later in the week, or next week, if this continues,” but he didn’t elaborate on what he meant by “this.” He never ended up going.

The governor also caused perhaps the biggest headache of Clinton’s campaign so far: the flap over driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. After waffling during a debate in October on whether she supported the measure, Clinton came out against it. (Spitzer later backed away from the plan, as well.) But the damage was done.

That ugly experience turned Spitzer into a pariah on the campaign trail—Hillary didn’t want audience members raising questions about licenses any more than he did—but ultimately it may have helped her. By distancing herself from Spitzer early on, she now avoids the fallout from what could become this year’s Larry Craig scandal. (It lacks some of the juicy details, but just wait.) Still, after Clinton pushed so hard for Obama to not just “denounce” but also “reject” Louis Farrakhan’s kind words about him, Obama could ding her for a weak response. So far she has declined to comment .

One problem, though: Addressing the Spitzer flap raises the ghosts of scandals past, namely Monica Lewinsky. Clinton has so far managed during this campaign to avoid public mention of her husband’s diddling. If the Spitzer controversy drags out, it could become a painful reminder of the final White House years. (Of course, you could argue that it would make people sympathize with her all over again.)

But in the end, the Spitzer fallout is more likely to damage the party than Hillary’s candidacy. For the past eight years, most of the lying, cheating, child molestation, and public sex has been the proud reserve of Republicans (or at least they excel at getting caught). The Spitzer scandal could flip that story line toward Democrats. Just as voters recoiled from Mark Foley’s indiscretions in 2006, they could easily cast Spitzer as the incarnation of Democratic hypocrisy. (Just watch this ad to get a sense of Spitzer’s sermonizing.) In which case, come November, the party could have more to worry about than Clinton’s election.