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What to look for

They say that  most  presidential hopefuls  surround themselves with a coterie of image-builders, an  army of researchers ,  and even wordsmiths with niche expertise, be it  cute shareable memes for the pabebe crowd or high-brow  talking points  to enthrall  the men in suits

Even their live appearances, they say, are choreographed, down to the minute details. Nothing is extemporaneous; everything is rehearsed.

Even the appropriate wardrobe is chosen for the occasion.

All of these are bombarded to the electorate. The latter are seen as consumers of these images and messages. This is supply-politics at work.

But what if  the people reverse the communication flow, and insist on demand-side politics for a change? That for once they  do the asking? What if people demand to see the candidates unplugged, without the intellectual  crutches that prop them up?

These can be done through debates. It is time to hold them.

Americans are holding theirs despite the fact that their elections are half a year later than ours.  This is not to say that we should always ape what the US political class is doing. Then again, the debate  is  not an American invention.

Locally,   debates are not covered by patents. Universities can organize  them, big associations,  religious groups, newspapers and even local governments.

And if any of these groups organize one, they must come.  Flight is not an option.  There’s only one honorable course—to fight.

If  one city government—provided that one unaffiliated  entity can still be found, which, is, to admit, in the realm of the fairy tale—would  organize, say, not a debate , but a convocation,  how can a presidential  hopeful snub it when 200,000 votes are on stake?

What if one  big UAAP school stages not a cagefest but a  symposium on just one topic—the tempest in the West Philippine Sea can be one—will an aspirant, like  a daycare pupil, sheepishly brandish an “excuse slip” knowing that the event will be broadcast  and podcast live?

What if a constellation of Rotary Clubs assemble in a coliseum to hear them speak,  can  a candidate  afford to have his or  her name plastered on an empty chair?

The Commission  on Elections, I think, does not have the monopoly to stage refereed debates. Neither is  the latter  the exclusive province of media behemoths. It is also an activity that is not  embargoed until the official start of the campaign season.

The flipside is that not every group has that gravitas  that could compel the attendance of those  seeking our votes. Needless to say, an invite from a  barangay  knitting club  won’t  reel in  any attendee.  But if a big  university serves the summons,  the candidate  can skip it on his or her own peril.

If a debate is not  possible, a real town-hall meeting will do. Not the kind stuffed with partisans who are used as props or  clapping machines.  This is akin to preaching before the choir. A real townhall meeting is one organized  by the townspeople themselves.    

Many  would lead  us to believe that a rally is a candidate’s opportunity to engage the  voters in a dialogue. Nothing is farther from the truth. Rallies, basically, are pep talks to the troops. The joke is that no rally has ever converted one voter because all of those in attendance have long been converted to the cause. It’s akin to a pro-liquor  candidate saying his spiel before a crowd of drunks.

A debate, however, is just  one way of measuring a candidate’s competence. To use it as the sole metric is to reduce elections to a declamation contest. Many good leaders are poor orators. The absence of bombast in one’s speech  shouldn’t be equated with  a vacuum of ideas in the head. On the other hand, the gift of gab is not a indicator of the gift to govern well. 

There are other criteria that should come ahead of elocution. Track record is one. Potential is another. Vocal timbre is certainly not among them. Through the ages, great leaders have come with voices ranging from pipsqueak to  stentorian.

So what the debates should  show is the candidate’s  vision. He or she  may not be able to explain it with aplomb. But  great ideas  create their own brilliance and would shine through  bland presentation. When the debate comes to town, don’t look for witticism. Look for wisdom.


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