The Presidential Trilogy: Part III

The third and last Presidential debate in Pangasinan was touted as a possible game changer promising fireworks. Just prior ABS-CBN announced its Pulse Asia survey had Duterte leading with 34 percent followed by Grace (22%), Binay (19%) and Mar (18%) (The VP numbers are Marcos 29%, Leni 23%, Chiz 20% and Cayetano 16%). Pangasinan is home to 1.7 million voters, the third largest after Cebu (2.7 million votes) and Cavite (1.8 million votes).

In fact the debate, all 3 ½ hours, was a non-starter. It was a rehash of past platitudes, platforms and promises. After almost 90 days of official campaigning one could sense the fatigue in the candidates, they just wanted to lay this one to rest.

With Digong in the lead, the pundits predicted he would be pummeled by his closest rivals. In fact all the candidates were at their best behavior with the toughest question of the night being posed by Duterte to Miriam: “How are you? “. There was one fiery altercation between Duterte and Mar on how many Davaoenos actually received Philhealth care. Duterte said none. It is amazing what the man gets away with.

Digong gave the strongest impression with his minimalist and rogue approach to governance. He summarized his platform in one word STOP, stop corruption, stop crime, stop non-sense. His solution to the Chinese annexation of the Spratleys is to personally jump on a jetski, plant the Philippine flag in the islands and “bahala na”.

One can see why Duterte ranks favorably across voter demographics: He leads in both the AB and CD economic classes. Voters are secretly enamored with the romantic notion of a benevolent despot. We easily accepted Marcos’ martial law at the outset. Digong is offering himself as this political Dirty Harry. He trades on fear, for the poor on fear of hardship and crime, for the rich on fear of disturbance and upheaval. He is at the nexus of what voters want: Change, honesty, leadership, accomplishment, and possibly entertainment. The other candidates offer some but not all of these. He is a charmer par excellence who is arguably more interested in adulation than he is in power, hence his outrageous remarks. However, in his search for the next sound bite and audience reaction he risks over-reaching both in words and in deeds. A Duterte Presidency will be part bull in a china shop, part Victoria Court on the Pasig, a fun, unpredictable, knee-jerk and controversial Administration. It is a high risk, high reward proposition, direct at its best, scary at its worst.

Jojo Binay was the traditional politician in full flight, working the entablado and promising to bring Makati to the Philippines. He was with one exception spared any references to corruption. Mar did ask him about the criminal charges and he answered with something on rural development. He was not taking any bait. He was very gentlemanly to Miriam.

Miriam was not well, struggling with her lines, her focus and her condition. People were more interested in her health and her new medication than they were in her programs. She recovered somewhat with her closing statement.

Grace Poe delivered a predictable performance, well rehearsed, well behaved and well groomed. She leveraged her status as a woman in a clear appeal to the female and third gender vote. Grace has lost much of her Big Mo on the security issue. Peace and order has become the dominant electoral theme and most Filipinos believe women cannot be tough on crime. Grace acknowledged as much but she vowed to be as compelling as they come on this matter. She needs to work on this message in the next two weeks but it will not be easy.

Mar delivered his best performance to-date. He was passionate when needed and his closing appeal for decency, care and unity were as close as we have seen to his true persona. His biggest problem is the baggage he has to carry for the failings of the PNoy Administration. Mar promises continuity when the public wants change, even disruptive change. He did well in the debate but probably not enough to get him to within striking distance where the powers of the incumbent –machinery, funding, and a little help from his friends- can make the difference.

Karen Davila looked very nice.

The elections have gone from a referendum on Daan Matuwid, to one on corruption and now on peace and order. This change in the political motif may explain the trailing ratings of Mar, the slippage of Binay, the leveling of Grace and the rise of Duterte. There will be a mad rush in the final weeks to change the outcomes with an explosion in the air and ground war and the release of monies. Currently there are 5% undecideds and 40% of the decideds are still prepared to switch sides; so the race is not over.

The third presidential debate did not tell us anything new. However, what it did –and here we must congratulate ABS-CBN for a job well done- is to bring to our attention the plight of the marginalized in our community. We heard Mang Carlos, Mang Jun, Aling Amina and young Jessa recount the raw desperation in their lives. They were the real story of the debate. The candidates promised them better but I am not so hopeful. I just wish I am wrong.

VP Debate #2

Yesterday’s VP debate was notable for its absences than for its presences. I refer to the no-show of Sen. Marcos in the forum. And who could blame him?

Bongbong is still licking his wounds from the pummeling he took in the first debate from Cayetano, Leni, Trillanes and the audience; so why take more heat? It was also not helpful that anti-martial law ads were being aired in the commercial break; so, yeah, it would have been awkward if not painful. The latest SWS survey reportedly shows him now trailing Leni by 5 points after being up by the same margin just prior, effectively a huge 10 point swing.

Gringo Honasan was also a no-show but nobody noticed or cared. His sponsor, Binay, presumably yanked him from the proceedings to avoid his becoming a lightning rod for further attacks on Jojo.

In fact it did not matter that Marcos was in absentia. Cayetano and Trillanes still ganged up on him ( Cayetano: “ First , Bongbong takes off with our money. Now he took off from the debate”). They were not about to let him go easy.

Otherwise, the forum was a love fest. In the Face-Off segment, the candidates refused to challenge each other. Chiz applauded the presentations of Leni and Alan which tells us he is actually a nice guy or we take politicians far more seriously than they take themselves. Cayetano did question Chiz on his countless corporate “ninongs” at his wedding (Bobby Ongpin, Ramon Ang, Lance Gogongwei, Andrew Tan, Hans Sy and Fernando Zobel) but the latter was non-plussed and even fist-pumped Alan at one point. Who says politics is a blood sport?

All in all the debate was ho-hum with the less said the better. At times I was unsure of whether I was in a Tawag Ng Tanghalan audition or a political forum. The moderators tried their darndest to raise the testosterone level and give us a show; but the candidates were too busy loving each other (when they were not dissing Marcos). ABS better reconsider its format for its April 24 Presidential Debate.

Leni came away looking the most compelling (Doesn’t she have the loveliest eyes?). She was confident, fielded questions well on the run and closed with an emotional and sincere call to unity and care. She reportedly now leads the race.

Cayetano admitted anger was his personal weakness (Marcos wished he would work on it). He thanked his wife, Taguig Mayor Lani; his sister, Senator Pia; his brother, Congressman Len; and his other brother, former Muntinlupa City Councilor Ren; for their support. Incidentally, for the record, Sen. Alan is against family dynasties.

In his closing remarks Cayetano spoke more for Duterte than he did for himself. At this point Alan has three wishes in some order of preference: One, that Digong becomes President. Two, that Bongbong does not become Vice-President. Three, that Alan Cayetano becomes Vice-President. The Senator may get two out of the three.

As in the first debate, Chiz was surprisingly low energy. He was present in flesh but not in spirit (in contrast to Bonbong who was there –unwillingly- in spirit but not in flesh): He did not project, displayed little passion and was generally a non-factor. He is often accused of loyalty lapses having been with Marcos, Binay, Erap and PNoy in conflicting situations. Maybe this is all catching up with him as reflected in his falling poll numbers. Not to worry, he still has Heart which possibly explains his fatigue.

Trillanes pushed for Poe and will probably play a role in her Administration but not as VP.

Marcos was present in spirit so he deserves an observation. Bongbong was hoping he would be spared with a no-show (out of sight, out of mind) forgetting that in politics you can run but you cannot hide: He might as well have entered the lion’s den and, however difficult, defended his honor, voters like feistiness in their candidates. On the other hand, Marcos may simply not have wanted to contribute to the ratings of ABS.CBN –or at least not without a talent fee.

Yesterday I did learn some things. One, that political debates are a great money-maker: Imagine all those ads and no talent fees to pay.

Two, I did learn that Highlands is good cornbeef, that Cream Silk is the best shampoo and CityMalls is a nice place to shop – or at least Anne Curtiss says so. Between trusting politicians and trusting her, I will go with Anne.

The VP Debate

The Vice-President has been called a spare tire, a shadow, a yes-person whose greatest challenge is attending state funerals of foreign leaders. Yet this time it is different: The VP we elect on May 9 will be a breath away from a President who could still be disqualified for her citizenship and/or residency, who could be impeached for corruption or who could die of old age. Our next VP could within the next 6 years be President of the Philippines. This was the perspective going into yesterday’s debate among the six vice-presidentiables.

The latest polls show Marcos leading the race followed closely by Chiz and Leni. Cayetano is fourth. Trillanes and Honasan are far behind.

Unlike the first two Presidential debates, the CNN Philippines format encouraged the candidates to engage and this they did.

Cayetano was sartorially (although a cool one, what’s with the fall jacket?) and strategically the most defined: He was emphatic, precise, consistent and gutsy. He promoted his partner Duterte as much as himself or was he just riding Digong’s coattails? He gave a timeline on their programs. He set the tone for the debate when he took Bongbong full on for corruption, the Marcos legacy and his “fake” educational credentials. He laced his opening and closing remarks with real life situations and was weakest only when defending the record of his wife, Taguig Mayor Lani.

Chiz was very much Chiz, glib and good on his feet. As a leading contender he intelligently kept within himself, avoiding either dishing or receiving s—t. He was just happy to see Marcos, his main rival in the polls, being pummeled by the others. Chiz was light, almost mocking of the process, comparing the candidates to “clowns” in a circus. He talked about political ‘colors” and why he chose white; which was neither here nor there. Heart, his wife, looked nice in white.

Honasan was as heavy on his weight and his clichés as he was light on specifics. He was challenged when having to defend the corruption record of his partner Binay. He was calm but generally irrelevant befitting his poor poll rankings. Talking positives, for being the oldest in the group, the man had the best head of hair, Leni exempted. Gringo should have followed the debate on TV just like the rest of us.

Marcos looks, talks and, according to Cayetano, will behave like his father. He was heckled from the get go and continued to be booed during the proceedings. He was clearly blindsided by the audience reaction as well as the vehemence of the Cayetano (and later Leni) attacks against him. He held his own as best he could: He thought we should move forward and not dwell on the past. He refused to apologize for the doing of his parents and insisted there was no evidence of the family’s ill-gotten wealth (“I cannot return money that is not mine”). He did not answer Cayetano on the hundreds of millions Marcos disclosed in his SALN when he never worked for a living. Bongbong said he is against political dynasties. Seriously?

Leni was light, composed and lady-like (“May the best woman win”) but showed a backbone when required. She had done her homework and was prepared to talk specifics. Unlike Mar, she is the Administration candidate without the Administration baggage so she was free to attack. Her instructions were to go after the leading candidates, Marcos and Chiz: She grilled Marcos on his father’s human rights record, Chiz on his opposition to Sin Taxes and for being mum on PDAF. She leveraged her record as the only non-trapo, only female, only one who has actually worked with communities and only one who takes public transport. Her opening and closing statements combined steel and emotion. Leni did well.

Trillanes is alone in not having a Presidential partner. He was unafraid in his attacks against Binay (who was reportedly in the audience). He trotted out his career as a political maverick, a tough fiscalizer and a military man with strong security credentials. He does not actually believe he will be elected VP but hopes to garner the national exposure for a future run or as potential DILG Secretary in somebody’s Cabinet, possibly Poe’s who he is backing.

Here are the winners and losers from the debate:

Best performance: Cayetano was clear, projected well and stayed on message.

Best Rookie Performance: Leni played to the heart while convincing us she is no wilting flower. Her pitch as “the voice of the people” was emotionally powerful and sincere. Mar could use some of her charisma.

Most Damaged: Marcos by a mile. He appeared dazed at times by the onslaught of his rivals and the audience.

Most Damaged Without Right Of Reply: Binay. In political parlance, he is treated synonymously with corruption.

Most to Gain: Chiz and Leni from the damage on Marcos.

Second Most To Gain: CNN Philippines for the audience exposure and the ads.

Best Visual: Pinky Webb who looked hot.

Best Line: Cayetano’s (when being interrupted by Marcos): “Are you going to steal my time as well?”

Worst Question: The moderators’ to the candidates: “Have any of you engaged in corrupt practices?”

Most Predictable Answer: “No” (by all candidates) to the Worst Question.

Most Derisive Answer With A Straight Face: “Yes” by Marcos, Cayetano, Escudero and Gringo (presumably for Binay)) to the question: “Are you against political dynasties?”

The moral of the debate: All politicians are indeed clowns (but with bank accounts) so why are we crying instead of laughing?