Mitt Romney is the presidential candidate of one of the world’s oldest and most powerful political machines. Henrique Capriles is the candidate of an ad hoc and inchoate amalgam of Venezuelan political groups. Both men are running against incumbents who are deft politicians with broad popular support, but the similarities end there. The US Republican is running for office in a mature democracy where the incumbent faces strict limits on using the state’s resources in his campaign. Mr Capriles faces Hugo Chavez, one of the world’s longest serving heads of state and an autocrat who has never shied away from treating the nation’s oil wealth as his own or changing laws at will.
Yet confounding expectations, Mr Capriles has run a flawless campaign and on Sunday will confront Chavez with the strongest challenge he has ever faced at the polls. In contrast, Romney’s campaign, lavishly funded and full of the best political consultants money can buy, has suffered from endless gaffes, mistakes and miscalculations. Peggy Noonan, a Republican columnist, has famously called it “a rolling calamity”.
So is there anything that Mitt Romney, the 65-year-old veteran of politics and business, can learn from a 40 year-old from a backward country with a deeply flawed democracy? Yes, quite a bit, as it turns out.
First, he could learn the virtue of being enthusiastically inclusive. He should ignore his advisers and reach out to the voters everyone says will never support him. Mr Capriles has engaged even the most stalwart Chavez backers and constantly reiterates that if elected, he will be inclusive, tolerant and will allow no score-settling against Chavez followers. Mr Romney instead sounded sincere in his now-notorious dismissal of the 47 per cent of voters whose lifestyle and income put them securely in Barack Obama’s camp.
Second, he should beware of ideology – which will never pay the rent or cure your sick child. “What I learned as mayor and governor is that people want concrete solutions to their concrete problems,” Mr Capriles often says. In contrast, Mr Romney’ rhetoric is long on ideology and short on details, a pattern that is making him vulnerable. People want to hear specific proposals that will improve their daily lives. This is as obvious as it seems to be easy to forget.
Mr Romney should also be careful to avoid bickering. While Mr Chavez regularly spews a torrent of insults at his rival, Mr Capriles has always been respectful and careful in the way he addresses the president. This is surprising, given the deep political rifts that divide the country. Yet Mr Capriles has understood that despite the polarisation, there is a growing popular hunger for reconciliation and a strong desire for politicians to stop bickering and get on with solving the country’s problems. While the polarisation is less pronounced in the US than in Venezuela, polls show that US voters think politicians’ squabbling is preventing them dealing with problems such as the fiscal cliff, high indebtedness or welfare reform and that this gridlock is bad for the nation.
While it is true that negative advertising often works, there may be significant gains to be made by tapping Americans’ hunger for more civility and collaboration among politicians.
Empathy is the next quality Mr Romney should cultivate. The only thing worse than a politician displaying a forced empathy is one who shows no empathy at all. Bill Clinton is, of course, the master at making people feel he genuinely understands their predicament. While empathy towards the poor and the needy also comes naturally to Mr Capriles, he has been very deliberate in making it one of the central features of his political persona. Mr Romney is trying hard to convey that he feels people’s pain. But too often he lets slip comments that make it patently clear that the privileged life he has led makes it hard for him to really get into poor people’s shoes. He should try harder.
Despite Mr Capriles’ flawless campaign he may still lose Sunday’s election and despite Mr Romney’s flawed one he may win in November. Mr Obama may turn out to be vulnerable and, thanks to his charisma, oil money and dirty tricks, Mr Chavez may prove invincible. If Mr Capriles wins on Sunday, however, his final lesson to the world will be to show that abusive autocrats can be beaten by a great candidate who runs an impeccable campaign.