BY THE time this comes out, the US elections will be over. Barack Obama will probably be leading the count, if he hasn’t been declared winner already. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, may have given the perfect ending to a perfectly imperfect or seriously funny campaign when he told a crowd at the tarmac in Colorado four days before Election Day, “I can smell success.” What he could smell in fact, as everybody there did, was cow dung. Or what most everyone calls BS.
In retrospect, those elections offer some interesting things for us, illuminating as they do our own condition by way of difference, or contrast.
The first is what a difference a debate makes—for them. The United States is not exactly the best example of ideological diversity, or intellectual fineness. When a country reaches a point where it starts defining any government intervention as “socialist,” you know it has gone past its apex and is on the decline. But its elections can still be counted upon to be a battleground of ideas and not just of personalities, of substance and not just of media hype.
Nothing demonstrated that more than that Romney nearly trounced Obama on the strength of one debate. Romney’s campaign was going nowhere, except downhill, until that fateful encounter in Denver in early October. After a series of blunders, he was being written off, if less than explicitly, even by his own camp. But after that debate, he surged powerfully, and was an inch away from the White House. If Obama had not stabilized his campaign after the second and third debates, indeed if Nature hadn’t come along in the form of a Frankenstorm to blow wind in his sails, who knows what could have happened.
In fact, who knows? Maybe a final twist has taken place and he has won, after all.
We ourselves have had presidential debates after 1986, formally with the 1992 elections, but if they have affected the outcome of elections, or even influenced them to any degree, only Mang Pandoy knows. The only thing we remember about them in fact is that they produced a Mang Pandoy, for a while the embodiment of the Filipino Everyman. He eventually fell back into obscurity and died some years ago pretty much the way he lived: poor, helpless, hopeless.
Since 1986, our elections have been won variously by (with the exception of Cory, who became president not by election but by People Power): dagdag-bawas, in the case of Fidel Ramos (1992) and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2004); popularity, in the case of Erap (1998); and a miracle, in the case of Noynoy Aquino, whose mother’s death rekindled Edsa and birthed his candidacy. The last was as close to substance as you could get here, a battle between good and evil.
The second interesting thing is knowing when to put politics aside. One of Romney’s biggest blunders, before he made up for it at the Denver debate, was politicizing the riots in Libya and the death of the US ambassador there. That brought him no small amount of criticism even from his own ranks. He didn’t make the same mistake during and after “Sandy,” which allowed the incumbent to break through. But what could he do? His hands were tied.
We do tend to be a little more sensitive to feelings during storms and other disasters, but there are exceptions. Several candidates were caught electioneering in the aftermath of “Ondoy,” sticking their names and pictures on relief goods. And P-Noy himself got his share of brickbats in the social media for bringing along LP stalwarts/prospective candidates in relief efforts after the monsoon rains in August. But for the most part, storms and disasters seem fairly taboo grounds for politics. Those are the times that bring out the best in us.
Not so foreign affairs, which is not so foreign to politics. Proof of which is the recent bickering between Juan Ponce Enrile and Antonio Trillanes over negotiations with China, with charges of treason flying all over the place. If I recall right, the war between the families in “The Godfather” broke out because Vito Corleone’s son, Santino, made the egregious error of disagreeing with his father in negotiations with outsiders. Which convinced the outsiders Santino might be more tractable if his father were to depart this earth. The lesson is simple: In foreign, as in gangland, policy, you face the world as one. United, you rise, disunited, you fall.
And lastly, it does gladden the heart that you do not see brothers and sisters and wives and husbands and fathers and children running routinely for public office in the United States. The closest to “dynasty” there is Bill and Hillary Clinton in Obama’s camp, and a little farther away, George Bush Sr. and Jr., who both became American presidents—to America’s eternal detriment. But they are the exceptions, not the rule.
Here, of course, they are the constant. It is almost obligatory for fathers and mothers to want their children to run for office, too, as witness the Arroyos and Estradas. Whether P-Noy belongs to the same category, I leave others to debate: I don’t know that Ninoy and Cory particularly wanted P-Noy to go into politics. His sisters have certainly pursued altogether different paths.
Alan Peter Cayetano argues that the question is not whether public officials are related, it is whether they are fit. Well, yes and no. True enough, some siblings and parents and daughters seem qualified for their jobs, but we do not lack for others who are brilliant or talented but who will have less chances of crashing into the system because of the barriers dynastic politics raises. Dynastic politics functions like any monopoly. Is the product good? Possibly. Can you get better? Certainly—except that they are not available in the market.
Something to think about, these differences, or contrasts.