MY last column was on Feb. 9 as I recused myself from writing so my critics won’t accuse me of conflict, even while some suggested I just needed to disclose my political affiliations. I decided to take a leave to send a strong message that scruples are ingrained and others just don’t have it.
And so “Zilch” is back with The Manila Times on its usual slot, every Tuesday. We will continue to write on policy and politics as well as governance issues with the new administration coming in.
But let me first say that I am proud of the way Vice President Jojo Binay conducted himself in his campaign. Trampled on and hit for 17 months, Binay continued to put together his platform and explained it to voters consistently. Given the chance to hit back, he decided to just concentrate on his message. Of course, there are lessons learned and certain things could have been done differently, but it was an uphill climb as we slipped on the slopes and our core melted away on EDay. Binay was my presidential candidate, a professional engagement focusing on advising on messaging and debate preparation. Binay was a personal decision made in Dec. 2015. Given the chance, I would have done things a bit differently, but when you arrive too late in the ballgame, you just try your best to help in any way.
What made the run-up to May 2016 more difficult was the decision by a small group of friends to assist Leni Robredo as early as Oct. 2015. It was easy for us because of Jesse Robredo. But it was not an easy work because we had to build a parallel organization, Samahang Tsinelas, overnight without a single cent and with some elements of the Liberal Party questioning our every move simply because I was with Binay. Robredo was volunteerism to the core. Parallel groups reached out to those who were for a different presidential candidate but were for Robredo. And there were so many things that happened behind the scenes that could probably find its way in a manuscript from 1 percent to the vice presidency in 90 days.
The switch done by Duterte was one of the best moves made in 21st century campaigns in the country. The last-minute switch accompanied by tremendous drama was the best inoculation done to a presidential candidate. Voters were very much interested in Duterte. There was mystery: who is this guy from Mindanao wanting to dare the gods of politics in a country that is heavily Luzon-focused? Who is this Bisaya mayor wanting to jump to national politics? These points alone went against the very grain of conventional wisdom that no Duterte can be President. At most, he will just bring Mindanao in the national agenda.
Thus as the campaign period rolled out, the campaign playbook came into the picture and looked heavily on machinery and contrasting message. In strategy meetings, Binay and Roxas had the machinery while Poe was continuity with a tweak. Roxas was “Daang Matuwid” (a bad strategy, even adopting it as political nicknames), Binay was “Ginhawa para sa lahat” and Poe was “Galing at Puso.” Duterte, on the other hand, played around his name and the colors of the flag. There was no discipline in design save for the play of his name. His single issue messaging was just on crime and anti-drugs. In the traditional playbook, that was low saliency because it was not a gut issue. And that blindsided all in the political establishment. He didn’t say much about his platform. But the guy was media savvy. He got in the news cycle by cussing, saying controversial things and using the middle finger. Even during debates, the mayor of Davao City had the best sound bites, but totally unrelated to policies, programs, plans and activities. Other candidates were seriously crafting their debate strategies and here comes Duterte, who is quite at ease charming the audience and his opponents.
Clearly, he had Roxas plotted in his debate framing for the whole three rounds. Another genius of a move was the single leadership question that floored Poe in the second debate. He hit Binay on his Achilles and Santiago was a tender embrace. Debate was used to soften the rugged image seen during rallies. He was simple, direct and held the stage with ease like telling stories. He was unease with his barong and was on jeans. The last debate was a Duterte in brown corduroy polo with the undershirt peering out. That he said he will just copy the platforms of others was shocking for some, considering the practice has been, in presidential politics, platforms are sacred.
Duterte or whoever in his team is a believer of symbols and crowds. He had the flag in every stop. They used drone technology to evoke a sense of belonging when one sees the humongous crowd in every stop. When he landed in NCR, the fever was so high that evoked the tribes of Seth Godin. The momentum was a tidal crash. That Luneta miting de avance broke many backs in the national scene. Here is a mayor from Davao City blindsiding everyone and even those steep in the trade calling it a washout was not given attention because “Duterte is a bit player. You don’t pay attention to him.” Alas, it was too late to prevent the erosion.
There is a page in Godin’s book that said: “I think we have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game, and to play it better than anyone has any right to believe is possible.” That was the Duterte campaign.