The Long View
A question of candidates
A year ago I wrote in this space (“The civic imperative: a reflection,” 3/19/08) that our generation’s calling is to rebuild our lost civic culture, which goes beyond insisting on our liberties but also recognizes our obligations to each other, our local and then our national communities. This means reintroducing the concept of debates on local or national issues, not as shouting matches or oratorical fireworks displays, but to present the pros and cons on which the electorate is called upon to render a verdict.
It was also a year ago, in the same piece, that I tried to distinguish the proper areas in which the courts of public opinion and of law should reign supreme: the dividing line being life, liberty, or property hanging in the balance depending on the verdict.
This time, I’d like to focus on something else we’ve lost, and which a restored civic sense can help recover: our alienation from our leaders. Even as so many groups, insisting on their rights, thunder and shrill, the greater majority, being tugged and pulled in all sorts of directions, end up resenting the idea of rights as something relevant only to minorities but apparently never to majorities.
And so while minorities derive comfort and, who knows, even inspiration from their leaders, these same leaders end up representing fewer and fewer people – which makes matters even more frustrating to the majority who feel that these leaders do not – because they cannot – speak for them, much less lead them.
One needs to ask, who made them leaders in the first place? For elected officials, the obvious answer is, The People. Having stepped forward and volunteered their services, these officials competed against others to get the support (votes) of The People. They even get promoted over time, and, in due course, decide to present themselves to The People for the biggest job of all: President of the Philippines. But of all the people who want to become president every six years, only one will succeed.
I used to wonder why the Senate is considered the training ground for the presidency, considering that the latter is an executive position, while being a senator requires an altogether different set of skills. The traditional reason is that, aside from the president and the vice president, only a senator can claim a national mandate; therefore, for any person wanting to present himself to the people, the Senate is the equivalent of the primary system in other countries. A senator has made the cut; can prove possession of a national constituency; and therefore he possesses the proven capacity to seek and acquire a broad national mandate, without which any president lacks legitimacy, and would be doomed to fail.
But I’ve come to another conclusion, and it has to do with what senators are required to do, once they get elected to the Senate. From the start let me make an assumption: the electorate, in pondering who should be president, has a bias for people of action, and not reflection; but men of action are also judged if they are capable of self-control. The hopelessly scholarly and remote and the active but unstable have their roles to play as national sages and gadflies but will never be president.
Consider, then, the example of a senator who, obsessed with his Action Man image, brushes aside questions of parliamentary procedure because he’s too impatient to learn the rules and thinks that the rules are bothersome, anyway (a surprising attitude considering that Action Man is also a lawyer, a person whom you’d assume has a certain reverence for the rules). Such a senator obviously cares for nothing but ambition. He has taken on the job of being a legislator not out of a desire to craft laws, which can only see the light of day if their passage is accompanied by a scrupulous regard for parliamentary procedure, but merely as a stepping-stone to higher things.1
That senator might argue that he is, temperamentally, an executive, and that the reality of our politics is such that the Senate is a necessary stopping-off point to the presidency; but contrast that senator with another senator, equally executive-minded, but who sets his mind to mastering procedure and learning how to craft legislation, no matter how tedious it may all seem.
In the end, the one who brushes aside procedure will be a less effective executive, because his ignorance condemns him to being a blustering blowhard while the one who had the self-discipline – and humility – to learn the rules so as to pay his position and the voters their due will prove a match to any wily bureaucrat trying to take advantage of his boss.
However, here’s another thing to consider. You could, conceivably, become a senator without need of a party, or by hopping from one to another depending on your needs. A senator can be a political butterfly because if necessary, he can afford to be a voice in the wilderness. A president has no such luxury. Being president requires not only a national mandate, it requires a national network of political supporters; you must be able to court not just support in order to be elected, but you must hold that support for the duration of your administration.
Michael MacDonald, in “Why Race Matters in South Africa,” quotes Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter: “Democracy’s guiding principle is that of citizenship. This involves both the right to be treated by fellow human beings as equal with respect to the making of collective choices and the obligations of those implementing such choices to be equally accountable and accessible to all members of the polity.”
Therefore, before we even consider those who are eager to present themselves as our next president, we need to ask ourselves: Says who? It is not enough for them to say they want to be president. We need to ask: Who has endorsed their candidacy?