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.