Mysteries of US Presidential Politics
George W Bush lost every presidential debate with John Kerry, but won the presidency. The Philippines' very own Joseph Estrada did not take part in any of the presidential debates of 1998, but won an overwhelming mandate. Filipino politics may not be as sophisticated as American politics, but perhaps our instincts are the same. We are both instinctively populist, easily taken in by the sympathetic smile and forgiving of what the candidate lacks in substance. Public debates are less about winning arguments, and more about winning hearts and minds.
Consider for instance the public allure of Sarah Palin. She is a winner by the Filipino rules of the game: a pretty face, though with barren credentials, and yet a quick study and feisty debater. Her anti-establishment rhetoric so intuitively tugs at the American (and Filipino) distrust for elites and big government, yet her own prescription for the US economic crisis is, precisely, more government regulation of the market. Investigations now show that she allowed her husband to use her office as governor to pressure an uncooperative police commissioner, but apparently she has the Teflon element and can get away with the defense that it was unethical but not illegal. She can't recall the name of a single newspaper that she read or of Supreme Court decisions (apart from Roe vs Wade) that she disagreed with. And these don't seem to have hurt her chances at all.
On the other hand, McCain's record as a war hero, a fighter pilot who was shot down in Viet Nam, has been a centrepiece of his campaign, and rightly so. That would've been a sure vote-getter in Manila as well. To his credit, he downplayed the 'war hero' label for decades, and has only recently embraced it once again as his defining moment. The mystery is that it didn't work for McCain when he fought George W Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. It didn't work for the be-medaled Viet Nam veteran John Kerry who lost to the draft-dodger Bush. Yet it seems to be working this time against Barack Obama, despite the fact that he is too young to have been part of their national agony over the Viet Nam War.
In a Filipino contest, I suppose, McCain would have been portrayed as 'anak ng diyos' ('son of god', meaning specially privileged), heir to two generations of naval officers, in contrast to the self-made Obama and Joseph Biden, achievers both who scraped by and made it on their own. For some strange reason, Obama has been portrayed as elitist, and at one point had to remind his audience what it feels to be a black guy trying to get a cab at night in New York City. (Perhaps had Obama been more aggressive against McCain, he would have been labeled as 'uppity', a put-down against well-educated blacks "who should know their place".) Obama has been criticised for coming across as being 'too professorial', when the public thirsts for blood. Filipinos do love gladiatorial combat as well.
Finally, if Filipino politics has taken a leaf from US politics, one reason is the rise of the professional polling group, like Social Weather Stations, that tracks public opinion and tells us what matters and what works in the campaigns. We have rejected our local 'pundit class' as mere partisan mouthpieces, and prefer the scientific numbers produced by the pollsters.
The similarities end there, however. There are arguments that would've surely worked with Filipinos, but somehow aren't taking off among Americans. Obama has reminded the public time and again that McCain is a Republican, the party of the incumbent George W Bush, and that he ought to explain the economic mess that Bush is leaving behind.
American politicians have historically avoided 'class warfare', and maintained the fiction of a free society of atomised individuals slugging it out eternally in a free market. In contrast, the rhetoric of 'rich versus poor' is a mainstay of Filipino politics, but we have not derided it as being 'divisive'. Perhaps we are already divided, and slogans couldn't hurt much. Or we suspect that rhetoric is just empty air to start with, and we know that the devil (as selfishly demonic as these guys get) is always in the details, covert and under the table.
But perhaps the Filipino distaste for political debate is much deeper. We never really take official discourse seriously. In other words, if we want the truth, we look beyond the big words, or better still, beyond words altogether. McCain preaches bipartisanship, yet in the first presidential debate, he couldn't even look Obama in the eye, and in the second he referred to Obama as 'That one', and, at least from what I saw on TV, couldn't even get himself to shake hands with him afterwards. So much for “reaching across the aisle".
If we are cynical about presidential debates, it is because our politicians prefer to conspire quietly with Garci (former Philippine election official) to rig the count, than debate publicly to win the vote. We must elevate ourselves from spectator to sovereign and insist on our own presidential debates in 2010.
This article was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008