BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — Italian politics has been noteworthy for many things: corruption, chaos, and, of course, bunga bunga parties. One would have thought it couldn’t get any more bizarre, but just give American political guru David Axelrod a chance.
The Democratic strategist, credited with orchestrating President Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2009, is heading to Rome, where he is reported to be aiding Mario Monti, the caretaker prime minister of Italy, in his quixotic quest for a role in Italy’s new government. Italy is facing elections Feb. 24-25.
Monti, whose centrist coalition is polling at barely 13 percent, faces an uphill battle. Austerity and higher taxes do not make for a snappy political platform.
But Axelrod has breathed life into Monti’s campaign; observers have noticed a newly aggressive stance in the technocrat as he faces off against rivals such as former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who stubbornly refuses to fade away despite sex and corruption scandals.
Axelrod has joined a long line of American politicos who are working outside their usual stomping grounds. In political contests from Italy to Israel to Bolivia to Senegal, consultants fresh off the American campaign battlefields are making their mark — sometimes for good, sometimes not.
The trend goes back to the 1980s, and a team of consultants who spread their talents around the world.
Detailed in James Harding’s 2008 book, “Alpha Dogs: The Americans Who Turned Political Spin Into a Global Business,” David Sawyer and Scott Miller “became the progenitors of a discreet international industry in American political know-how.”
Along the way, of course, they made a whole lot of money.
Once the euphoria of a big win fades away, campaign strategists need to find something to occupy their time and feed their wallets. They would also prefer not to take any big chances with their carefully honed images.
“If you help elect a president and then you get involved in a governor’s race and you lose, it’s going to be a little bit damaging to your reputation,” prominent Democratic strategist James Carville told Politico in 2010. “But if you go to Peru and you run a presidential race and you lose, no one knows or cares. So why go to New Jersey and lose for 100 grand when you [can] go to Peru and lose for a million?”
“If you understand New Orleans, you understand Afghanistan”
Carville is a master of the offshore campaign; he has worked with politicians in at least 20 countries, including a much-publicized stint as adviser to Afghan politician Ashraf Ghani in 2009.
Ghani, the economist extraordinaire who gave up his US passport and a promising career at the World Bank to return to Afghanistan and run for office, was enthusiastic about Carville.
“This is a Louisiana boy who understands” he told NPR. “If you understand New Orleans, you understand Afghanistan.”
The partnership was not what you’d call a resounding success: Ghani got less than 3 percent of the vote. But that may not have been entirely Carville’s fault, or Ghani’s. They were simply outmatched.
“What I learned from a distance is that democracy hasn’t taken hold there yet,” said Tad Devine, a political consultant who worked with Carville on the Afghan campaign. “I did not observe what I would consider to be a democratic election in Afghanistan. The fix was in. There were real questions about whether the voting was rigged.”
There is general agreement that the Afghan vote was, in fact, tainted, and part of the “fix” was supplied by the US government. Newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged as much in his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.
Kerry was the big gun tapped to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff, and his appearance in Kabul did much to lend legitimacy to a badly flawed poll.
“I went through this personally with President Karzai in the last election where there were serious questions about the propriety of the process and we had to sort of strike a compromise about it,” said Kerry.
Carville is the “C” in GCS, advertised as “the world’s most advanced and integrated political consulting package.” The firm’s website boasts that it has been able to use its talents “in dozens of countries on six continents to win elections, rebuild national parties, re-brand politicians, improve the standing of heads of state, and sometimes change political landscapes entirely.”
As GCS’s chief strategist, Jeremy Rosner, put it, “It’s foreign policy for profit.”
Rosner was speaking in “Our Brand is Crisis,” a documentary film about the 2002 campaign of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to become president of Bolivia. Sanchez de Lozada, known as “Goni,” engaged the firm to help him with strategy, polling, and messaging.
“They bought the whole GCS package,” laughed Carville.
Goni was a long shot, one of 11 candidates, and had a somewhat controversial record as Bolivia’s president in the 1990s. He was also up against some pretty stiff competition: one of his rivals was Evo Morales, head of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party, a former coca farmer, and, incidentally, a harsh critic of US policy in the area.
Bolivia was undergoing a financial meltdown at the time; unemployment was soaring and the desperately poor population was growing restive.
But the GCS stepped in and painted Goni as the man to deal with the crisis. They also supplied an effective strategy on how to tear down the opposition.
Their man won, and the GCS advisers rejoiced. A bit prematurely — the policies Goni espoused, and from which he firmly refused to back down, were enormously unpopular in Bolivia. Within months riots engulfed the country, and Goni was forced out, seeking refuge in the United States.
Now president, Evo Morales, is pressing for Goni’s extradition to face charges stemming from the deaths of nearly 100 protesters during the violence.
The aftermath did not bother the firm unduly; both GCS and Tad Devine, whose firm, Devine Mulvey, collaborated with GCS in Bolivia proudly list Sanchez de Lozada and the 2002 election among their accomplishments. They were responsible for the win, not the aftermath.
Rosner admitted to feeling some responsibility; their candidate, he acknowledged, was a bit arrogant. and, as he told Goni in one scene, “50-something percent of the country can’t stand you guys.”
But the team was merely trying to “bring a specific brand of democracy” to the country, said Rosner. However, he added philosophically, “there are conditions that democracy ultimately can’t deal with.”