The Long View
The great debate
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:59:00 03/24/2010
AFTER THE DUST SETTLES, it will be interesting to see how many voters watched the presidential and vice-presidential debates, and how many modified their choices accordingly. But early on, it seems to me two things are evident. First, the positive contribution debates can make to the general campaign has been reduced by having too many of them and too often under too many rules and different sponsors. We are generally familiar with the American model, in which during the entire campaign there are only three, sometimes two, nationally televised debates. In the United Kingdom, for the first time they are having prime ministerial debates, and there will be three of these, too, during a much shorter campaign period. Second, the debates ought to now shift to the last, remaining great debates the country deserves to witness: between the two leading contenders as well as their running mates.
The dictionary defines a debate as “a formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward” or “an argument about a particular subject, especially one in which many people are involved.” In 2004 the two leading contenders declined to debate each other, but in 2007, the senatorial debates attracted public interest – and attention. So far, the candidates, presidential and vice-presidential, have faced each other: most recently when Sen. Manuel Roxas II wiped the floor, so to speak, with Sen. Loren Legarda.
The leading contenders have been hammered in turn for missing some of the debates. For example, both weren’t at the very first debate, the UNDP MDG Forum (back in October when Francis Escudero was still in the running) or at the one sponsored by Pastor Quiboloy. Sen. Benigno Aquino III also missed the Romulo Foreign Policy Forum, while Sen. Manuel Villar didn’t attend the Harapan debate at University of Santo Tomas, and the FOCAP forum where Aquino turned up.
Faced with the logistical aspects of truly national campaigns, neither could ignore considerations on the ground despite the publicity offered by debates. On the other hand, the other candidates had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and fewer logistical considerations to consider in attending and ganging up on the leading candidates. That Great Gadfly, Richard Gordon, in particular, has taken turns hurling fire and brimstone with characteristic bravado at whoever happens to be leading at any particular time.
Aquino, however, has challenged Villar to a one-on-one debate. The NP standard bearer has accepted, but there doesn’t seem to be progress in the negotiations despite the well-known American presidential debate formats being proposed by the LP. One can only hope that both sides can agree on an organization to host the debate(s), a suitable venue, with the major networks agreeing to pool their coverage. There isn’t any point in reinventing the wheel, what with the contractual aspect of the American presidential debates available for downloading online: they are scrupulous in detailing everything from the placement of podiums, the provision of water and notepaper, the handling of questions, and so forth to prevent media editorializing or giving undue advantage to any party involved.
Whether the other candidates and their supporters like it or not, there are two leading contenders. Everyone has had ample opportunity to duke it out but the country deserves to see the two square off against each other. This will either redound to the benefit of one of the two leading contenders – or to the benefit of the others, since one might shine, or both might not. But by all means let’s compare apples, not apples and oranges.
Aquino’s challenge and its acceptance by Villar mean both have committed to a one-on-one debate, without prejudice to other debates being proposed or held, but which, really, neither needs to attend until they have settled their unfinished business with each other in what will be the Great Debate of the campaign. That is, if the NP standard bearer was serious about accepting the challenge or, even if he was, whether, having craftily calculated the risks, he now considers it a losing proposition to show up. Aquino has expressed exasperation with the foot-dragging of Villar, who, after all, has a marked disinclination to engage in interpolation in the Senate, unlike Aquino’s dogged reputation (dating back to his days in the House) for being the “last man standing.”
Villar himself followed his usual procedure by remaining silent, leaving one of his senatorial candidates to insist that Aquino’s claims to the contrary (he said his spokesman has approached the NP twice), they haven’t gotten anything and there’s no need to submit letters. This suggests, however, that the NP is playing for time, trying to figure out whether their candidate can afford to flee the field of combat yet again, leaving the fighting to his subordinates as he did when pinned down in the Senate.
The Nacionalistas have to buckle down to business and work things out with the Liberals as we approach the Holy Week vacation. Then the Great Debate(s) can take place in what will be the last leg of the campaign from the resumption of the campaign after Easter leading to election day itself. This is a risky proposition for both candidates, but the country should see whether one or the other, or both, deserve their leading contender status.
On the same principle of not mixing apples and oranges, there should be a separate vice-presidential debate between Roxas and Legarda as the frontrunners, a logical rematch after their recent encounter. A tandem debate only makes sense if the country votes on the basis of joint tickets, which isn’t the case as we elect the president and vice president separately.