Although the United States is no longer manufacturing powerhouse, there seems to be no end to services it can export. Campaign advisors are the latest product.
The two political consultants who squared off in the 2012 election have been hired by campaigns around the world. David Axelrod, who lead the Obama campaign and has also advised Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, recently worked for Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti’s campaign. Axelrod encouraged Monti to urn his usual mild-mannered professorial tone into a more aggressive and opportunistic stance. Then, to show his more sensitive side. Monti appeared on a talk show with what was purportedly a dog adopted from a shelter. Nicknamed Empy—Empathy—the dog turned out to have been rented for the occasion, on the advice of his American consultants. The Italian media ridiculed Axelrod, causing backlash, and questioned American meddling in Italian politics.
Axelrod’s 2012 Republican counterpart Stuart Stevens ventured further from home advising Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Congolese President Joseph Kabila. Berisha hired Stevens in 2005 for his return to politics. He had been forced to resign in 1997, following the intervention of NATO when civil war seemed imminent. Stevens ran the Albanian strongman on a strong anti-corruption platform, presenting him as a pro-American reformer. Berisha won, despite allegations of wrongdoing and citation by Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index of the worsening corruption of the country’s election practices. Similarly, The Economist reported that Kabila relied not only on his internal consultants, but also made “…full use of his control of the security services and his monopoly of the state media…” during the campaign.
These two examples of American political consultants abroad highlight several concerns raised by the trend; ethical ones first. While neither Stevens nor his firm may have been implicated in any wrongdoing, his work for tainted politicians such as Berisha raises questions about his ethical judgment. Second, as was clear in Axelrod’s case, American involvement in elections, even by private consultants, engenders an anti-American backlash. The big question remains: how effective are consultants when working abroad? Axelrod not only failed to help Monti win, but further sank his image. After witnessing Berlusconi’s campaign histrionics for the past twenty years, Monti’s professorial attitude was often welcomed. Axelrod’s suggestion to change simply moved him in Berlusconi’s direction. Similarly, while Stevens may have successfully marketed them to their electorates, his candidates both enjoyed strong a priori advantages. Kabila, for example, was succeeding his father, who had been assassinated.
Still, though, in a world where an American’s phone call can be answered in Bangalore, how long can it be before when most international elections are run from a Washington office?
(Picture courtesy of talkingpointsmemo.com)