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Picking Zannini is Like Choosing Karl Rove as a Running Mate

By | [email protected] | June 19, 2015 3:42pm

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Decisions can be simultaneously surprising and unexpected. To some degree, theory and practice are always in a sort of tension. Politics is very much this way, where capable politicians are limited in supply and often strategic choices seem like a catch-22: It’s hard to gain influence, consolidate power and win at the polling booth all at the same time. If such a move existed, why hasn’t it been done?

If the alliance is a good idea, why now? Why wasn’t it an alliance until now?

From a pragmatic viewpoint, Carlos Zannini ticks boxes everywhere except, well, the one box that actually matters: The ballot itself. He’s a true power broker in every sense – his track record is not having a track record, and remaining indisputably inner-circle since the Frente para la Victoria‘s (FVP) inception. The “Legal and Technical Secretary since 2003” title says it all – this is the glue man. Or maybe a welder. Of very heavy, apocalyptic-future-robot-overlords type machinery. Just reading his job title can breed admiration or loathing, often both, but rest assured it’s been a decade since anyone has crossed Zannini. Even Ricardo Lorenzetti knew better to try during the Media Law debate. Zannini is Argentina’s Wizard of Oz.

Now, a headline comparing the architect of arguably the most controversial president in recent memory to an engineer of a far-left populist resurgence will annoy some. But this is an election year – candidates are going to be whomever they think they’ll get away with being in the pursuit of electoral success. Ideology is boring. Strategy, on the other hand, is fascinating.

Karl Rove was to George W. Bush what Zannini is to the Kirchners. And right now, Daniel Scioli is Mitt Romney: Both men intend to leave no “footprints”. They both avoid substantive declarations on positions, instead choosing to feed eye-rolling cliches to their base whilst being careful not to alienate independent voters. Their defensive persona comes off as artificial and choreographed, thus the seem lacking in self-awareness and intelligence. So let’s play a game.

Who said it: Mitt Romney or Daniel Scioli?

Write down your guesses and see how you did:

  1. “More important than being from the left or right, is being in the center with the people.”
  2. “I think people recognize that I’m not a partisan —that I’m someone who is moderate, and that my views are progressive.”
  3. “Choosing education is a very good decision, not only good for the student, but also for our country. The United States was the first nation in history to recognize that public education for every citizen, regardless of class or station, was vital to its future”
  4. “This combines a couple of things I like best — cars and sport.”
  5. “The need to duplicate vigor to generate a family consciousness is fundamental for growth in this country.”
  6. “I’m not familiar precisely with what I said, but I stand by what I said, whatever that was.”
  7. “Women are busy deservedly in more institutional and economical spaces in this country. 40% of banking positions are occupied by women, and this was noted in debates, where now it’s not only important that these are economic issues, but also on the matters concerning family, health and education.”

(Answers at the end)

For both Scioli and Romney, the formula is simple: Take every opportunity to make what is vague even vaguer and avoid strong opinions on current issues. In this context, the difference between US and Argentine politics becomes stark. Despite making himself Kirchneresquely scarce to the media, Romney was pushed into corners, worn down mentally and exposed as a contradiction. Scioli, by contrast, gets away with it – his world is a grand computer-generated whitespace where corners don’t exist, only holograms.

You can see the difference in a deeper media culture. Romney’s list of quotes read like an awkward teenager’s diary confession – as if he were routinely trying to impress others but comes across as misunderstood, overly cautious and internally conflicted about identity. On the other side, Scioli is happy to be a political slogan generation bots, spitting out whatever gives him an opportunity finish sentences with a podium-level optimistic stare into the distance.

Yet like Romney, Scioli has the same trouble all “moderates” have: The base. Only one party has true Machiavellian grasp on power (excluding the city of Buenos Aires) and that is FPV. And these Peronist string pullers don’t support anyone just to hear about love and hope. What have you done for me lately? What can you do for me in the future?

 “The biggest difference between then and now,” O’Neill tells Suskind about his two previous tours in Washington, “is that our group was mostly about evidence and analysis, and Karl (Rove), Dick (Cheney), Karen (Hughes) and the gang seemed to be mostly about politics. It’s a huge distinction.”

First, the obvious differences. Rove has never held office. Zannini has, in the past, operated as both a functionary and a legislator. Zannini is a lawyer, Rove is not. Zannini involves himself in La Campora, the youth wing of Kirchernism. Rove makes appeals to corporate America, the rich, the connected. Zannini is deeply invested in a consistent ideology. Rove is more flexible – precise beliefs matter less, likewise principles. Popularity and electability are the only currencies that count.

Both Zannini and Rove became involved very early in the governorships of two future presidents: Néstor Kirchner and George W. Bush, respectively. Both have been called “the architects” of their Presidents’ rises in politics. With Rove, you can clearly see how valuable his insights are – he still turns to a whiteboard in an age with graphical touchscreen displays. He can recite every state, county and district, cite polling data, historical outcomes and general electoral trends. His techniques haven’t changed since the 80’s because they don’t need to. A complex polling data cruncher wouldn’t assist him – he already is one.

Although faction-style voting still exists in the US among unions and other organizations, its influence has declined substantially – voter sentiment, or preferences as demographic segmentations is now the key to power. The path to victory is deep understanding of electoral math leads to power. However in Argentina – just 22 years into its democratic renewal – voters are still organization by blocs, and are heavily influenced by power brokers. Electoral success happens through backroom deals, procuring favors and avoiding long knives. It’s as if every voter is represented by an agent, who negotiates resources for his faction in exchange for votes. “Voter sentiment” exists but can turn at the snap of some fingers.

Karl Rove may know his segments (and how to draw on a whiteboard), but Zannini understands how power brokers think. His method of control – his big stick – is the judicial system. Through a profound understanding of Argentina’s constitutional laws, he’s able to put pressure on anyone the party needs – from the Supreme Court down. His intimate knowledge of “political debts” accrued by funcionarios and judicial representatives is used to whip dissidents in line. Likewise, Rove is an expert in political messaging, electorate preferences and how to spend other people’s money. He does favors for campaigns all over the country – and expects the same in return. His unflappable ability to get candidates elected anywhere makes him powerful and feared by even his own party.

For Scioli, it’s important to unite all divisions of Peronism – just as it was for Mitt Romney to unite Republicans. Achieving that goal requires the full support of the FPV, the home of Kirchnerism and an electoral juggernaut. But to gain her support, he needs to give an official position to someone from her inner-circle – and make credible assurance they will remain there. Even when former Vice-President Julio Cobos voted against the farm export tax – effectively a double-cross on his own President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – he still couldn’t be thrown out except by a two-thirds Senate majority vote. Zannini will operate as an insider with impunity, same as ever.

Yes, Karl Rove would never actually be asked to be someone’s running mate. But if he were, the reasons wouldn’t be all that dissimilar to Zannini’s call up:

a) he knows the electoral math needed for victory 

b) endless political insider connections and ties with officials 

c)could call in favors from numerous legislators.

No, he wouldn’t help Mitt Romney win extra votes, but he’d assist him in executing in political power struggles. Zannini is the same: He’s not driving votes to Scioli, but the logic is totally Rovian.

Answers: DS, MR, MR, MR, DS, MR, DS