The ethics of campaign consulting

Para Venezuela, desordem e recuo
Para Venezuela, desordem e recuo

It’s me vs. the Brazilians in this Simón Romero New York Times piece. The money quote:

[Santana’s] skills also came into focus in Venezuela, where both Mr. Chávez, who died of cancer last month, and his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, hired Brazilian consultants last year. Some critics of Mr. Chávez contended that it was an unfair race given the state propaganda apparatus at the incumbent’s disposal.

One prominent Venezuelan political blog, Caracas Chronicles, went so far as to call Mr. Santana a “Svengali,” recognizing his sway in such races. “It’s airbrush politics at its finest,” said Juan Nagel, an economist and a contributor to the blog, pointing to Mr. Santana’s skill in softening the image of leaders like Mr. Chávez, whose democratic credentials had been challenged.

“The Brazilian recipe, never mind that he’s helping elect horrible people, is all about winning,” Mr. Nagel said.

In a rare interview here, Mr. Santana hit back at the criticism about his work for Mr. Chávez, saying, “The impact our campaign had among Venezuelan voters speaks for itself.”

Yes, João. Your highly effective work contributed to the re-election of a man whose lax policies toward crime have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of my compatriots.

That speaks for itself.

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  1. João Santana ajudou a eleger a presidente Dilma Roussef e a assessora hoje, sendo o publicitário mais importante do governo.

    Mas, durante a campanha presidencial de 2010, ele “vendeu” a candidata Dilma Roussef como sendo uma grande gerente que saberia fortalecer a economia brasileira. A imagem de grande gerente (big mannager) tem fracassado com o evidente retorno da inflação, o PIB inexpressivo de 2012 (apenas 1%!, o que levou os brasileiros a chamarem-no de “Pibinho”), corrupção no governo e a paralisação das obras do PAC (Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento).

    João Santana é um marqueteiro político – dos bons, é claro – e isso significa que pode nos vender – e vende! – gato por lebre.

  2. For Santana, the only ethics in campaign consulting is associated to a business transaction. That is, if the campaign pays, the consultant delivers value. For me the money quote in Romero’s piece is:

    “Mr. Santana said he had also agreed to run the 2014 campaign for the candidate of Panama’s Democratic Change, a center-right party, in addition to establishing a venture in Italy to start managing campaigns in Europe.”

    “Cambio Democratico” is the party of Martinelli, the current president of Panama. Martinelli is at the opposite end of the political spectrum when compared to Santana’s other clients (and certainly the Castroite Venezuelan PSUV/Maduro).

    • Exactly…Juan Nagel, I feel your pain, but you are showing outrage at a political consultant. Had Capriles have the bucks to hire this guy, he would have worked with him. Would you have found this guy more to your liking under that situation? A scum bag is a scum bag no matter where it sits. Right?

      • Does Juan believe in market economy, free-market and all that stuff? The guy has an expertise, available to clients who desire and can afford it. As a professional is he obliged to render services only to people that please specific ideologies? Is his job to make individual choices on behalf of Brazilian, Venezuelan, El Salvadorean. Angolan (to name a few) citizens or are those societies the ones in charge of educating their citizens to a level that will allow them to make informed choices when presented to different alternatives? By the way, Brazilians are also the ones rendering services to HC campaign. Likely both teams are being hired officially and according to independent decision-making made by each campaign. Let us be a bit more reasonable Juan.

        • I believe in ethics as well. Helping elect a guy who’s been in power for 33 years is unethical, no matter what the market says. Helping elect a terminally ill candidate and lying to the public about it is beyond unethical. It’s thinking like this that gives market economics a bad rap.

          • Juan, you are not alone. I guess most of us do believe in ethics as well. The issue here is of a different nature. It would be very easy to simply divide people in good or bad, right or wrong. Maniqueism is out there to cover this kind of approach. Of course those who are in line with our own philosophy/ideology are the good and right. The others of course would be on the other side… A political consultant, anyone at anyplace, builds a strategy based on the client’s objective and the output of his research and analysis. I am not defending any politician or political consultant here. But blaming any consultant for not sharing “our” political and moral perception views and work (succesfully) for the “other guy” and not being the guardian of the “moral standards” seems not reasonable to me.

          • The moral or ethical lapsus here is that Santana pretends he has a principled stance. He doesn’t. He is obviously happy to help any campaign part with money. Begs the question: does he accept payment in Bolivares? I doubt it. So where does the cold hard currency the PSUV uses to pay him come from?

            Anybody willing to venture a guess? Anybody?

          • Humberto,

            Nowhere in that article do I remember seeing a mention that Sanata sees himself as a principled guy. he sees himself as a vary competitive business guy.

          • BTW, sorry about the doubling posting below. I was trying to reply to Juan, but somehow, the replies end up under Humberto’s post.

          • Indeed Santana does not seem to pretend to hold any principled stance. He is playing this thing as a professional. And of course professionals want to render services to those who can pay them – either HC or Chavez could be his clients. Of course he would not accept payment in Bolivares because he is a foreigner leaving in his country. James Carville rendered political services throughout the world and got paid in his own currency – US$. The financing of any political campaign is a matter of the regulatory framework regarding campaign financing. I guess that we all agree that both sides have no transparency with regard to the sources of funding, despite the fact that most of us have it for a fact that most part of PSUV funding comes from the state, directly or indirectly. Well, HC funding is supposed to come from the private sector and individual donors, but where the payback will come from if he wins? NO saints in this game.

          • As others have said here: The ethics of campaign consulting are that you should do your best for your client. Of course, you argue that no one should have consulted for Chavez because he is the bad guy. You confuse the business (consulting) with the bad guy (Chavez). Are you certain that the consultant knew Chavez was about to die? Imagine the tables turned, Santana consulting for Capriles, and Iminister Villegas bloody murder because Santana is helping a guy who is gonna get rid of the misiones (or pick some other uncertain scenario). I bet I’d see a column here pounding on Villegas. Afraid, my friend, you are here coming out as the perfect Chavista.

          • That is a twisted view of ethics. It’s like saying the only role for the Zimbabwean soldier is to follow Mugabe’s orders and do his job, and be a professional. There are consequences to our acts.

          • What I am saying is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too, Santana is a gun for hire. You’d have no qualms if he had helped Capriles win even though Santana (or his form of business) is a douche bag. Your problem is that he helped (if he did) win the guy you don’t like. Had he helped Capriles win, you’d conveniently overlook his lack of ethics or even laud him for helping the good cause.

          • As others have said here: The ethics of campaign consulting are that you should do your best for your client. Of course, you argue that no one should have consulted for Chavez because he is the bad guy. You confuse the business (consulting) with the bad guy (Chavez). Are you certain that the consultant knew Chavez was about to die? Imagine the tables turned, Santana consulting for Capriles, and Iminister Villegas bloody murder because Santana is helping a guy who is gonna get rid of the misiones (or pick some other uncertain scenario). I bet I’d see a column here pounding on Villegas. Afraid, my friend, you are here coming out as the perfect Chavista.

          • @hgdam: after re-reading the Romero piece, it appears to me that you are correct in that Santana appears to make no pretense of holding to any ethical standard. I do agree with Juan Nagel he probably should.Surely we agree the line must be drawn somewhere: how is consulting for candidate representing a regime that has torn apart the fabric of venezuelan society by maintaining databases of excludable opponents” (lista “Tascon”) be any different than consulting for a candidate that supported, say racism or (extreme) ethnic cleansing?

          • Juan, saying that Santana helped Chavez get elected is beyond preposterous. They guy could blow his trumpet all he likes, but as far as Venezuela is concerned, his “achievements” are meaningless, when considering our political reality.

            You should know that, and Simon Romero should too.

          • The party that won also pays Eva Golinger. Does that also make her a key to Chavez’s electoral victories? Further, could you, or anyone else for that matter, claim with a modicum of credibility that had Santana not been hired Chavez would have lost? #getreal

          • Eva Golinger is not, far as I am aware, in charge of giving campaign advice, so I’m not sure what she has to do with this issue. (She is on the chavista retainer, from what I can see, to lend credibility to ridiculous charges against the USA, the idea being – ironically enough- that if it comes out of the mouth of a gringo, it must be credible.)

            The centrality of advertising to Chavez’ last election campaign suggests it was an important factor, particularly given his reduced ability to be physically present. Hence, the importance of an effective strategist.

            Would an ineffective strategist have changed the outcome? I think it may have. I think the historical evidence is that Chavez did not win every vote. I think it is reasonable to suggest that a 10% margin is not insurmountable. Therefore, I think you cannot discount the role of an effective strategist in these sorts of contests. If he was redundant, you would have to wonder why he was re-hired.

  3. I remember, in my early days in Political Science School, a professor told me: “you could make a buck or two in the consultng business, if you throw your scruples away…”, and he added, wryly, “a teacher’s life is not a glamorous life”.

    I appreciate political marketing and you cannot say it is useless -nor should you refrain from using it, as your opponents won’t- but it is disheartening to policy wonks, pollsters, ideologues and academics (and also to life-long politicians, who in general seem to dislike professional advice). Not only because of the fame and the money, but because it defeats the notion that reason, policies and arguments alone are what frame a campaign. Image, jingles, news-cycles and so forth are distractions from the actual business of governing.

    Of course, you could make the argument that not having said professional help diminishes your political proposal as some sort of pre-modern business, run by political machines and coercion. Either way, the way democracy and citizenship is so framed is not pretty.

    Alas, many films hail the political consultant, as someone who can outsmart liars and propel underdogs into stardom. Perhaps that’s the narrative Mr. Santana aims for…

  4. I don’t know, Juan. How about the lawyers that defend child abusers? Or those that represented Union Carbide after the Bhopal disaster? Would you criticize them as well?

    I think it is a dangerous thing to take a self-appointed role of deciding what is or what is not moral in someone else’s profession in particular in the case of Venezuela in which the society is so explosively divided that “morality” is interpreted through very partisan lenses.

    Personally, I have seen unethical things done by both parties in Vzla but only when it is the other the one that does it, it is clearly considered unethical by our side, and vice-versa.

    • Bruni you got it precisely right. Congratulations. I fully endorse your take on this issue. That is the concept that I was trying to put forward above in my comments to Juan.

    • Your comparison is completely wrong. The lawyer defending the child abuser is doing so *after* the fact has occurred. He is not actually enabling the child abuser. Santana is enabling wicked politicians. He is helping them retain power. Whatever the Union Carbide lawyers did after the explosion – some of it surely unethical – is happening after the exlosion took place.

      Deciding what is or isn’t moral is the whole point of ethics. If you want to take the position that there should be no ethics, that’s … good for you I guess.

    • Professionals have to draw a line. They do not exist in a moral vacuum. In the case of lawyers, for example, they may work for reprehensible people, but they do so within a system with strict rules and hopefully, at a high ethical standard. For example, lawyers should not propagate or condone the telling of lies in defense of their clients. And they should draw the line in representing persons who are corrupting or attempting to corrupt the system in which they are being defended. You can’t automatically attribute to a lawyer the morals of his or her client, but neither can you set lawyers aside as operating in an amoral universe. Professionalism requires an ethical standard.

      I’d have to know more about what Mr. Santana actually does to know how far he might have crossed a moral line, but a better person would probably take more pride in doing work in political contests where the rules are respected and enforced. He evidently sees politics as a kind of metaphorical blood sport: in Venezuela, the metaphorical part of the blood sport has blurred into the real.

      • my mistake, he used more of a circus analogy. Well, the metaphorical circus left town some time ago in Venezuela and now opponents of the regime are forced to do a high-wire act in the town square with no rules and no safety net…

      • What about public defenders? A public defender can’t choose his or her clients. They are appointed by the court, and they have a responsibility to represent and advocate for their clients zealously. If lawyers couldn’t defend people they suspected of being guilty, the legal system – based on the principle that everyone is entitled to zealous representation – would collapse. I’m not suggesting it’s the best system, or the most just. But I’m not sure that it’s an accurate representation of legal systems as they exist.

        • Whether or not a public defender is ethical has nothing to do with his or her clients charges. The public defender is ethical by obeying the rules of court and professional conduct. If the client acts to subvert those rules, then the public defender is going to have to make some moral and ethical choices.

          • What I find incredibly disturbing is seeing a system where a vigorous defense is useless because the judge and the prosecutor are working as one. I see kids graduating from Venezuelan law schools unable to put in practice what they learned. And thousands of people are suffering horribly, victims and accused alike, because there is no justice.

          • Good point. Unfortunately, if it’s your client’s accuser and his/her supporters who are making the claim that you’ve subverted the rules, in other words if an independent body hasn’t ruled that there’s been a violation of the rules, then the moral and ethical choices aren’t quite so clear cut for the lawyer. But I think at this point we’re getting a bit abstract. I do understand your point. However, I don’t believe either in theory or in practice that politics are governed by the same rules of conduct and professionalism – in short, high principles – that we imagine govern a well functioning legal system. Again, not suggesting that’s a good thing. Just suggesting that it’s the way politics work. Thanks, though, for the reply.

          • What I have described about how a legal system should act and how a political system should function bear no resemblance to what is going on in Venezuela. And politics and lawyering are (usually) two different things, though I do think both have rules -written and unwritten- that should be respected.

            So, I say, Mr. Santana should not so lightly enter into political contests around the world like they are all the same “game”. He could probably make an honest buck in say, Canada, working for the party in power. Russia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe etc etc., not so much. Interesting discussion Alejandro and thanks.

      • I had exactly this conversation with a lawyer friend last Saturday. He had a client who proposed to have his parents lie under oath to confirm his false alibi. He immediately withdrew fromt the case, as he could not be a knowing party to perjury.

        Also, a defense lawyer is in a different position from a political consultant. His client needs counsel by the action of others – the state which prosecutes or the plaintiff seeking damages. He’s entitled to representation so the proceeding will be at least somewhat fair.

        The candidate wants help in something he is voluntarily choosing to do, and has no claim on anyone ‘s assistance.

        This can apply to lawyers too. A lawyer may be required to defend a criminal suspect, or may be assigned pro bono to an indigent civil defendant. But there’s no requirement that a lawyer assist in filing a vexatious or improper lawsuit; in fact, the legal canons forbid it. (Not that it stops some lawyers.)

        • Your friend would face the same constraints whether he was working pro bono, assigned by the court, or doing it voluntarily. The point is, under any conditions, you live in an ethical framework and have ethical obligations. This is an interesting discussion because it is a problem which Venezuelans, as professionals, face every day. As inspectors, engineers, accountants, lawyers, police, whatever…face this constant struggle to act ethically in a system which is rigged.

    • Not very different from working on an advertising campaign for some particularly nasty brand with a particularly bad rep (say cigarettes), assuming you know the effect on the consumer? In other words, until the surgeon general declares that chavismo is bad for your health it’s all business as usual.

    • @Bruni: a lawyer is not the same thing as a campaign consultant. The ethics of a lawyer dictate that they seek justice through an adversarial process. Defending Nazis in Nuremberg, Union Carbide after Bhopal, Pol Pot after the killing fields, all appear ethically correct because the process should lead to justice. If that does not convince you, look at the negative of the premise: convicting the accused without providing access to legal representation is reprehensible.

      Deliberately choosing to sell your services, like Santana, to a flawed and corrupt regime that aspires to stay in power using those very services appears ethically challenged, at the least.

    • The child abusers lawyer analogy is faulty, here. The ethics behind a lawyer defending a guilty person of an “indefensible” crime has more to do with the right to legal counsel and fair trial than anything with the actions taken or omitted by the accused. A defense attorney may condemn his client’s actions, but should defend to the death his client’s right to the best legal counsel he can provide. That is legal ethics.

      In the political consultant case, there is no “right to political counsel” for chavismo, nor is there a “right to ignore the ‘misuse’ in public monies”, much as there is no handwashing from purchasing blood diamonds. Business ethics keeps businesses out of tainted business transactions for that very reason.

  5. It is evidence that chavismo was not an authentic revolutionary movement driven by an awakening of class consciousness, but rather, a sales job. If any further evidence is needed.

  6. Talking about comparative morality is a sticky wicket. Not going to go there. Forgetting that politics is dirty business — on all sides — is also not a good idea.

    What I would like to address, however, are simple semantics.

    Juan: is it possible to find a more precise adjective to describe chavista corridors of power, other than “horrible”? I’m talking about this sentence:
    “The Brazilian recipe, never mind that he’s helping elect horrible people, is all about winning,”

    It’s kind of like saying “they’re nice people”, which really says nothing.

    Also, remember that business is all about wins and losses, Brazilian (and American and Venezuelan) recipes notwithstanding.

  7. one day someone will have to write about all the different ways in which our brazilian “brothers” contributed to this debacle

  8. His ethics are non-existent but he is a Brazilian businessman and his job is to win elections. He does not owe alliegiance to Venezuela or its people. He was hired to win, and he did. If people that suffer from the horrible crime wave and economic problems re-elect a terrible president, I would not put the blame on Chavez’s consultant.


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