The Explainer: Team of Rivals

That was from the satirical online show When in Manila’s  November 14 episode. We’ve been doing a series on the presidency and it’s time to focus on the vice-presidency. John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first vice-president, famously declared that veephood “isn’t worth a pitcher of warm piss.” Domestically, you often hear that the only job of a vice-president is to wait for the president to die. Which, if you’re a paranoid president, can cause enough stress to cause a heart attack.

Tonight we’re going to take a cue from Abraham Lincoln and see how the vice-presidency is not only about teamwork, but making a team out of political rivals.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


When martial law was declared on September 23, 1972, Vice-President Fernando Lopez found himself without a job. Marcos had backdated martial law to September 21 for good luck and like all dictators tried to become the master of destiny. Marcos was no different from his predecessors in being ambivalent about the vice-presidency, which served as a living reminder that he wasn’t irreplaceable.

So what he did, instead, for much of his dictatorship, was make sure the rules were vague on who would be his successor, and to keep his lieutenants guessing on who might succeed him. He said he left secret instructions to be opened only upon his death; and suggested what he might create was a council, which raised the expectations of his cronies that, if they behaved well, they might be in it. Typically, Marcos, in 1984, restored the position of vice-president but left it empty; he only bothered to put forward a candidate in 1986, for the snap elections.

From 1978, when he formally put in place a semi-parliamentary system, the nominal number two was the man you see, blurrily, between the Apo and Madame: Prime Minister Cesar Virata. But Marcos made his low opinion of the prime minister clear to everyone in ways everyone could understand.

Before martial law, the Vice-President had an office in Malacanang, in the Executive Office Building where the President himself held office. Prime Minister Virata was not given a Malacanang office and instead held office in the former Congress Building, renamed Executive House –and located halfway across town from where the Batasan Pambansa had been established in Quezon City.

To this day, the presidency operates out of Malacanang while the vice-president operates out of the middle of nowhere in the PICC. The vice-president, then, since 1986 has continued to operate literally at arms’ length from the presidency.

This very public ambivalence is a holdover not only from the premartial law days, but our experience since Edsa. This Philippines Free Press editorial cartoon from the late 1980s reminds us why. First of all, of our 12 nationally-elected presidents, three have died in office: this means 1 out of every 4 presidents has died in harness, with their vice-presidents succeeding them. This critical editorial cartoon also reminds us of something that finally came to pass in 2001: an ambitious vice-president can also maneuver to oust a sitting a president.

The First Republic didn’t even bother with the position of a vice-president. From 1934 to 1935, the Constitutional Convention at one point considered not having the position, either. In the first place, the delegates were aware of how powerless the position was, and some delegates proposed that the new Constitution should provide for other ways for a presidential succession.

The Convention was also divided, informally, into two large factions, the followers of the two biggest leaders of the day: the rivals of Sergio Osmena, for one, particularly his political opponents in Cebu, assumed Osmena would be the nature candidate for vice-president and didn’t want him to have the job. On the other hand the health of Manuel Quezon, whom everyone assumed would be president, made providing for a vice-president a natural precaution.

Which brings us to this remarkable Free Press cartoon from the first national presidential contest we ever had in 1935. The imagery here contains some basic realities that are still with us. In seeking the presidency, a candidate can go about it solely on his own strength, as shown by a solitary Aguinaldo; or, a presidential candidate can campaign on the basis of his running with a widely-respected running mate, presenting a tandem, a leadership team, shown here by Quezon and Osmena. But notice the horses: Aguinaldo had to master a stormy coalition between radicals and veterans; Quezon and Osmena had to keep control of a jealous coalition composed of their respective followers.

In the end, the strategy of a tandem of contrasting personalities –the volcanic Quezon and the pacific Osmena- proved a winning combination and by 1941, when they ran for relection, had gelled into the image of the dependable partnership for a country facing a stormy and uncertain future.

Providing for a designated successor also proved providential when, in the midst of war and in exile, Osmena smoothly succeded to the presidency on August 1, 1944.

Yet Osmena was in many ways, an exception in subordinating his ambition time and again to maintain unity within the national leadership; for this he was rewarded with mandates that remain unprecedented for the vice-presidency. In 1935 he got 86.6% of the vote; in 1941 he achieved an astounding 92.1% of the vote.

In 1946, when Elpidio Quirino was elected vice-president, he obtained a slim majority of 52.36%. Like Osmena, his being picked as Manuel Roxas’ running mate was based on the conventional wisdom that North must balance South to bring in the votes.

Like Osmena, Quirino put himself forward as a figure who would balance the president, who would be a loyal assistant and subordinate. For example, in his memoirs Quirino –striking a Napoleonic pose in this photo of the 1946 independence ceremonies- said he took a hard line as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, with the US Ambassador, the man in the white hair, Paul V. McNutt, with President Roxas in turn being more flexible. In this way, he said, he and Roxas managed to bargain down the Americans.

Quirino’s running mate, Fernando Lopez, the only man who became Vice-President in two different administrations, in 1949 got a slim majority too, of 52.1%.

Magsaysay’s Vice-President, Carlos P. Garcia, however, got a landslide, 62.9%, almost as big as the Magsaysay landslide that remains the biggest majority for a first term election.

Garcia also played a role similar to Osmena and Quirino, presenting himself as the bland vanilla manager in tandem to the charismatic leader that was his running mate. Magaysay was criticized for lacking experience; Garcia was put forward as the veteran assistant.

By 1957, trends we’re familiar with today, started to show themselves. As political parties weakened, candidates started being unable to obtain strong majorities. Carlos P. Garcia failed to get a majority and the margin oppositionist Diosdado Macapagal obtained for vice-president was even smaller: a mere 46.55% of the vote.

Presidents before Garcia had maneuvered behind the scenes to keep their veeps in check and Roxas even planned to junk Quirino and to have Quintin Paredes as his running mate if he’d lived to seek reelection in 1949. Magsaysay was widely understood to have decided on Emmanuel Pelaez as his running mate if he’d lived to seek re-election in 1957. But Garcia, a Nacionalista saddled with a Liberal veep, did the unprecedented.

The only job a vice-president has is a cabinet one at the discretion of the President. Garcia preferred not to exercise this discretion with Macapagal who got no job and even a run-down official limousine, so Macapagal spent four years exhibiting the pathetic car to the public and so defeated Garcia in 1961.

In that election, Emmanuel Pelaez did even worse thatn Macapagal, obtaining only 37.7% to be elected vice-president.

As it turned out, things soured between Macapagal and Pelaez, when Macapagal sacrificed Pelaez’s reputation for integrity to protect himself from accusations of taking bribes from an American tobacco magnate, Harry Stonehill. When Macapagal ran for re-election in 1965, Pelaez had joined the Nacionalistas, only to lose the nomination to Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Fernando Lopez made a comeback, becoming only the second vice-president to successfully achieve re-election. In 1965 he obtained 57.14% of the vote; in 1969 he obtained 61.47% of the vote, almost putting him at par with his jealous running mate, Marcos.

Fast forward to 1986 when the Aquino-Laurel and Marcos-Tolentino tandems both broke the rule in place since 1935: neither ticket represented a North-South compromise; both were Luzon tickets. Yet both campaigned on the tried-and-tested tandem image of charisma combined with managerial or practical experience.

But something had changed, and my colleague John Nery put it forward in his column last year. The vice-presidency today, he argues, is not about addition, like the old days, but subtraction. Let me read you part of what he wrote:

“Since the snap election, the principal role of the vice-presidential running mate has changed. To be more precise, since 1986 the winning presidential candidate’s decision-making process for selecting a running mate has turned from addition to subtraction.

“In other words, the main value of the vice presidency in election politics is tactical: It provides a presidential candidate the best way to sideline a strong rival.”

Joseph Estrada’s 33% percent win in 1992 restored the rivalry and tensions we first saw in the Garcia-Macapagal years.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s near-majority of 49.56% in 1998 not only represented a bigger plurality than Estrada’s presidential victory, but put in place a vice-president who actively moved to succeed into office.

Which is why when Manuel de Castro Jr. obtained a controversial near-majority himself, he became the first vice-president of a tandem to win election with his running mate since 1986, but also, a key tactic in Mrs. Arroyo’s claim to victory: he’d been a potential threat, but as veep became insurance: many of the President’s critics preferred her in office to risking a de Castro presidency.

So the Vice-Presidency is am ambivalent office viewed with mixed hostility and contempt by most presidents. Yet Osmena, Quirino, Garcia and de Castro have shown how the office can be helpful to an administration.

Which finally leads us to this man, Abraham Lincoln, who was viewed as a hick with minimal qualifications for the presidency.

This lady, Doris Kearns Goodwin, published a bestselling chronicle of how the bigwigs Lincoln had in his cabinet ended up turning their contempt for him, into admiration.

Her book, “Team of Rivals,” has been famously endorsed by Barak Obama, himself attacked as high on charisma and low on competence before he won the presidency.

Her book chronicles how Lincoln created a powerful and dynamic coalition out of that team of rivals, turning them into subordinates who went the extra mile to serve a president who treated them with courtesy, trust, and honor.

Can something simiar be achieved here at home? We’ll ask a notable political analyst when we return.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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