Commentary Magazine


Topic: election

Chavez Wins—So Does the Opposition

Had Hugo Chavez won yesterday’s presidential election in Venezuela by a landslide, the opposition would have justifiably accused him of committing massive electoral fraud. Especially over the last two weeks, support for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, swelled to the extent that many local pollsters believed he would pull off a narrow win at the last moment.

Instead Chavez garnered 54 percent of the vote, against 46 percent for Capriles. That margin of victory helps Chavez insofar as it staves off charges of electoral manipulation. At the same time, it confirms that Venezuela is seriously divided, with almost half the country rejecting the ideology of Chavismo pushed by the regime, along with the corruption, incompetence, and contempt for democratic rights inherent to this system of government.

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Had Hugo Chavez won yesterday’s presidential election in Venezuela by a landslide, the opposition would have justifiably accused him of committing massive electoral fraud. Especially over the last two weeks, support for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, swelled to the extent that many local pollsters believed he would pull off a narrow win at the last moment.

Instead Chavez garnered 54 percent of the vote, against 46 percent for Capriles. That margin of victory helps Chavez insofar as it staves off charges of electoral manipulation. At the same time, it confirms that Venezuela is seriously divided, with almost half the country rejecting the ideology of Chavismo pushed by the regime, along with the corruption, incompetence, and contempt for democratic rights inherent to this system of government.

The other half, as the Venezuelan dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal observed this morning, feels empowered by the social envy (el resentimiento social) that Chavez has turned into a revolutionary dogma. Says Duquenal,

[They]…hate people like me. Maybe not to the point of killing me, but to the point of trying to screw me any way they can…Now in Venezuela you will have all the trouble in the world to manage employees…to demand that public servants do the job they are appointed to do. Because if you feel that you have rights, then they will see you as a direct impingement on their comfort.

However deflated Capriles may feel today, he has won a victory of sorts. Without question, had he been fighting in his campaign in a conventional democracy, he would have won handsomely. But in Venezuela, elections are stacked against the opposition from the outset. Whereas Capriles was permitted just three minutes of airtime daily, there were no limits on Chavez’s cadenas, his trademark one-man broadcasts that often last for several hours. Nor was Chavez short of tame media outlets hailing him as the leader of socialism in its 21st century mutation.

Chavez was never obliged to debate Capriles on issues of policy. Instead, he chose to demonize his opponent, casually throwing around epithets like “pig,” “Nazi,” and “little bourgeois.” Anti-Semitism too played a central role in Chavez’s messaging. Though Capriles is a committed Catholic, he descends, on his mother’s side, from Polish Jews who arrived in Venezuela after surviving the Holocaust. Chavez, whose principal political mentor was Norberto Ceresole, an Argentinian Holocaust denier, seized on these origins with the gusto of a Julius Streicher. Cartoons lampooning Capriles often showed him wearing a Star of David. Among the many vicious profiles of Capriles in the pro-Chavez media was one by Adal Hernandez, a Chavista radio commentator, which carried the title “The Enemy is Zionism.”

Most of all, Chavez was able to call on the resources of the state to fund his campaign. PVDSA, the state-owned oil company responsible for the petroleum revenues, which make up 95 percent of the country’s foreign export earnings, has been cannibalized by the regime for all manner of pet political projects, from low-impact social programs aimed at capturing the votes of Venezuela’s poorer voters to subsidized oil programs for fellow tyrannies like Cuba and Belarus.

In a context like this one, Capriles’s achievement in winning 46 percent of the vote—Chavez’s previous challenger, Manuel Rosales, won only 37 percent in the 2006 election—is quite remarkable. Hence, while it is true that Chavez is now, as the Economist put it, “six years closer” to his goal of remaining president until 2031, Capriles has emerged as the focal point of a re-energized opposition. “He has become the indisputable leader of the opposition and his face-to-face work is a key asset for the future,” said Luis Vicente Leon, the head of the Datanalisis polling company, whose polls over the last few months showed Capriles steadily gaining on, but never quite surpassing, Chavez

The personal touch that Leon alludes to is what endeared Capriles to so many voters. Denied serious access to the media, his response was to meet the voters in person in more than 300 locations across Venezuela, earning himself nicknames like “Road Runner” and “Marathon Man” in the process. Part of the aim here was to contrast the young, good-looking and energetic Capriles with the ailing, portly, and remote Chavez—and it worked.

In defeat, then, the Venezuelan opposition has never looked stronger. As well as marshaling the support that crystallized around him during the campaign, Capriles can also call on the willingness of Venezuelan democrats to confront the regime, as they did in 2007, when Chavez’s attempt to abolish presidential term limits was defeated, and again in 2009, when Chavez railroaded these same proposals through, bypassing Venezuela’s congress in the process.

And once the Chavista celebrations have died down, Venezuelans will realize that when it comes to the two key questions that faced the country on the eve of the election—the economy and Chavez’s own health—nothing has changed. Thanks to Chavez, Venezuela’s enormous debt burden, currently at $140 billion, will continue to rise. A currency devaluation is likely in the next few months. And in marked contrast to the other members of OPEC, Venezuela has been forced to cut its oil production, since PVDSA is no longer run by professional bureaucrats but by Chavista loyalists who have no idea how to run an efficient oil industry.

As for Chavez’s health, he claims he has been cured from cancer. Given that he never provided details of his illness in the first place, there is no reason to believe that his Cuban doctors have successfully banished the disease. At the moment, therefore, it is reasonable to think that cancer will get rid of Chavez before an election does. In nearly all tyrannies, the death of the leader is followed by bitter struggles among his followers; and when that happens, Capriles will be waiting.

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Judge Upholds, Delays Voter ID Law in PA

This isn’t a total victory for proponents of the voter ID law, but it is a very positive sign. While the judge upheld the Pennsylvania law requiring voters to show identification at the voting booths today, part of the law will be postponed until after this election:

A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge has ruled that the state’s controversial new voter ID law will stand, but voters without a valid picture ID card will still be able to cast their vote and have it counted this November.

Judge Robert Simpson has effectively decided to postpone part of the law.   Following his ruling, voters will still be asked for a valid voter ID at the poll.  But if they don’t have it, they will still be able to cast their vote in the usual manner.

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This isn’t a total victory for proponents of the voter ID law, but it is a very positive sign. While the judge upheld the Pennsylvania law requiring voters to show identification at the voting booths today, part of the law will be postponed until after this election:

A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge has ruled that the state’s controversial new voter ID law will stand, but voters without a valid picture ID card will still be able to cast their vote and have it counted this November.

Judge Robert Simpson has effectively decided to postpone part of the law.   Following his ruling, voters will still be asked for a valid voter ID at the poll.  But if they don’t have it, they will still be able to cast their vote in the usual manner.

Voters will be asked to show ID, but they will not be turned away if they don’t have one, at least for the upcoming presidential election. Heritage’s resident voting law expert Hans von Spakovsky notes that there was no permanent injunction issued, and the partial postponement will only impact this election. Opponents of the voter ID law can still appeal — and I imagine they will — but it’s a setback for their argument that the law itself is unconstitutional.

While many headlines spin this temporary injunction as a win for voter ID opponents, that’s actually not the case in the long-term. At the Heritage blog, von Spakovsky writes:

While this may seem to be a win for opponents of common-sense election reform efforts like voter ID, it is actually a loss. Pennsylvania was handicapped in implementing its new law by the shortness of time remaining before the election. The court simply found that the state could not effectively implement the ID requirement in only a month. The law is still in place and remains valid.

Critics of voter ID laws claim that they’re going to be used to disenfranchise voters in the upcoming election, in a sinister plot to flip the election in Mitt Romney’s favor. In fact, those who support voter ID laws do so for sensible reasons. Voting integrity is just as critical as voting access, and if someone is able to cast a ballot illegally, that cancels out the choice of a legal voter. Asking for people to present valid IDs at the polls is a simple and reasonable requirement.

The judge in this case reasoned that some voters might not have enough time to obtain identification before the upcoming election — that’s a legitimate argument. But to argue the law is unconstitutional and should never be implemented is ridiculous. If low-income people are less likely to have valid identification, the emphasis should be on helping them obtain IDs, not blocking safeguards at voting booths.

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Romney’s Strategy Isn’t Working

The line from Romney headquarters last month was “every day we’re not talking about the economy is a day we lose.” This line, which came from the highest reaches of the campaign, was proffered to explain the unwillingness to provide substantive details on a host of policies besides the economy. Well, Romney HQ isn’t talking about the economy these days. It’s talking about the ad that all but accused Romney of murdering a woman with cancer. It’s talking about its vice-presidential pick. It’s talking about whether its ad accusing the president of gutting welfare-to-work laws is accurate. Guess what? It turns out you can’t just talk about the economy when people—and the media—want to talk about something else.

The polls suggesting he’s seven or nine points behind are surely wrong, but given that there is only one national poll that shows him ahead, we have to presume Romney is behind. He should presume he’s behind. And given that there’s no good reason whatever for Obama to be leading, one can only presume that Romney’s strategy in July and now in August is not working.

Which is why the “we only talk about the economy” line, while superficially clever, was and is so foolish—stupid, even. Of course Romney wants to focus on that one issue. It’s the one that hurts Obama the most, and the one on which he seems to score the best. He and his team have an idea about the campaign. They need to win independents to win. Independents are less ideological. So don’t press the ideological buttons. Keep it simple. Keep it plain. Obama has hurt you. I’ll help you. Fine.

But that’s not the only reason they’re doing it this way.

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The line from Romney headquarters last month was “every day we’re not talking about the economy is a day we lose.” This line, which came from the highest reaches of the campaign, was proffered to explain the unwillingness to provide substantive details on a host of policies besides the economy. Well, Romney HQ isn’t talking about the economy these days. It’s talking about the ad that all but accused Romney of murdering a woman with cancer. It’s talking about its vice-presidential pick. It’s talking about whether its ad accusing the president of gutting welfare-to-work laws is accurate. Guess what? It turns out you can’t just talk about the economy when people—and the media—want to talk about something else.

The polls suggesting he’s seven or nine points behind are surely wrong, but given that there is only one national poll that shows him ahead, we have to presume Romney is behind. He should presume he’s behind. And given that there’s no good reason whatever for Obama to be leading, one can only presume that Romney’s strategy in July and now in August is not working.

Which is why the “we only talk about the economy” line, while superficially clever, was and is so foolish—stupid, even. Of course Romney wants to focus on that one issue. It’s the one that hurts Obama the most, and the one on which he seems to score the best. He and his team have an idea about the campaign. They need to win independents to win. Independents are less ideological. So don’t press the ideological buttons. Keep it simple. Keep it plain. Obama has hurt you. I’ll help you. Fine.

But that’s not the only reason they’re doing it this way.

Romney and his people prefer this strategy because it’s what is most comfortable to them. He is not, at root, an ideological person. Neither, at root, are they. And the data suggest this is not a time for a sharply ideological campaign. The data suggest Romney needs to run as Mr. Fix-It. That is how Romney prefers to view himself. So the two match perfectly.

Alas for him, that’s not how it works. If conservative ideology is a problem with some independents, it also has the virtue of providing those who use it to discuss the nation’s problems with a pulse. Romney has just learned over the past few weeks that he cannot limit the discussion to the topics he wishes to talk about, especially when his rival is spending $100 million trying to destroy him in the swing states and when the media are largely serving his purposes by acting as though an increase in the unemployment rate and utterly unimpressive jobs-creation numbers are somehow good news.

So here’s why he should be talking about other things, releasing plans, giving speeches on big topics—because it’s the only way he can control the discussion. If he says the same thing about the economy every single day, he bores. He provides nothing new for anyone to fix on. He has to feed the beast. And it can’t just be that he puts his toe gingerly in the welfare-reform pool one day and then defend himself for three days after. It all has to keep moving.

In any case, if he doesn’t start putting things down on paper and develop the themes in speeches and get specific so that there is some meat on the bones of his policies, what on earth is he going to talk about for the next 88 days? Whether or not he killed a woman? This is a race he should be able to win, so if he loses, it won’t be because Obama won it. It will be because he lost it—and we’re seeing exactly how that might happen right now.

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