Smoke On Roxas
When you come to think about it, Mar Roxas probably has one of the most impressive résumés among candidates on the road to the 2016 elections. Roxas is the scion of two powerful families in both politics and industry (lest we forget that Mar is the son of a Senator and the grandson of a former President, and is also the grandson of the man who built the Araneta real estate empire). He’s an Ivy League graduate: he is an economist from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He spent years as a financial hotshot in New York, making a name for himself in the world of capital and investments. He’s a former Congressman, a former Senator (garnering the most votes for any candidate in a national election, at that), and held three different Cabinet positions under three different administrations.
While other prospective candidates have to blow smoke (like, say, turning the Philippines “into Makati”) to curry favor among the people and win their votes this early (at least one had to figuratively/literally blow someone’s rocks off), Roxas is—on paper—the most qualified. One may even say that he’s destined to be President: a man born and bred to be in Malacañang. Rightly or wrongly, Roxas has a very clear advantage among others through his position of privilege.
… I’m not even sure. Photo from Oras Na, Roxas Na
The problem is, that’s not exactly how Roxas is packaged. And as it turns out, it’s a really big problem.
It’s a different sort of blowing smoke altogether for Mar Roxas: to use an “advertising” analogy, it’s the problem of established premium brands who try to sell themselves to a market that can’t afford to buy them. Not that it can’t be done, it just reeks of “reverse pretentiousness” of sorts. The pitfall often comes when the item is placed on a very masa context: it’s what the brand aspires to be, but all too often it just doesn’t work out too well. Without careful thought, the whole thing either looks weird, or it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
(And I’m not talking about 2016 aspirants doing the whole “pabebe wave” thing, but I’ll get to that when I feel like it.)
“Looking weird,” I think, is the least of Roxas’s problems. Over the past few years, the portrayal of Roxas stands in stark contrast to his personal background and public service record. In previous elections, Roxas is a “man of the people:” attuned to the needs of the struggling masses, empathetic to their struggles and hopes and dreams. Maybe part of his own political successes came from that: the man, after all, still holds the record of the biggest statistical success in the popular vote.
But all that never really changed. Roxas’s public image eschews all reference to his blessed and privileged background, and embraces the trapo-ness of all that surrounds him. Mar Roxas is a baby-kisser, an MRT rider, a palengke-shopper, a tricycle-rider, a dancer, a sako-bearer. Roxas is just-your-average-Pinoy who, unlike average Pinoys, doesn’t really know how to do average things.
I know it’s not the proper word, but it just feels… IDK, slightly ratchet.
For all the jingles and monikers and “kilig” moments that his wife Korina Sanchez proffers on national television, Roxas is just that: droll, boring, a bit of a middle-aged milquetoast. Whatever charisma he had in previous elections has given way to the ravaging of experience: the white hairs and fine lines that come with the Senate and the Cabinet, among other things. Not that there’s anything wrong with being boring, but there is something wrong with the image-building.
The last time Roxas insulted the mothers of corrupt politicians before a crowd of ardent supporters, the word “odd” was putting it nicely: it’s like the guy never cursed a day in his life, and fails to grasp the gravity of “t*ngina.” The last time Roxas alluded to metaphor, the delivery stank more than the heads of garlic he brought along as props: Roxas never really needed actual herbs and spices to bring the heat on a Constitutional Assembly. The last time Roxas went to a marketplace, it was less of the classic “Mr. Palengke:” he had all the countenance of—and this is putting it mildly—a dead fish: Roxas has bigger fish to fry.
What makes all of this so problematic for Roxas is that the carefully curated “man of the people” thing is not really him. We all know that Roxas doesn’t need to ride the MRT or a tricycle, nor does he do his own shopping from wet and decrepit palengkes. We all know that the guy doesn’t need to wield a hammer or carry sacks of construction materials. Those are territories best left to his rivals and opponents: for people like Jejomar Binay to eat in boodle fights to wash all taints of corruption, or for people like Grace Poe to randomly point at MRT coaches to present some semblance of technical knowledge. Binay has to harp about being a “human rights lawyer,” while Poe has to invoke her father’s memory from time to time. Roxas’s rivals come into the game with very clear disadvantages against him, and therefore have to play the tired old trapo game: that while politics is the province of the wealthy and the educated, wealthy and educated people like them (insert tired anecdotes about poverty here) are ready to speak for the poor.
Roxas simply doesn’t have to do that. And he shouldn’t.
And there’s the bad taste in the mouth: people see right through it. We chuckle inwardly at the stereotypical “rich kid” trying to bag a few groceries or repair a school chair, but we get miffed at Roxas because we know what it’s all for. I’m sure that Roxas may be genuinely interested in learning carpentry or selling fish, but that’s all a distant priority compared to the Presidency. Would he be doing all of these if the stakes were not this high?
When you have a political résumé as impressive as that of Roxas, you don’t need contrived ways to “reach out to the people.” Rightly or wrongly, democracy embraces the idea that we should be governed by people who are better than us. If we’re objective about it, people like Roxas completely fit the bill. Not because they break bread with us, but because people like him know how to get that bread to every Filipino’s home.
More importantly, what Roxas is doing now is something that his rivals can probably do better. When taken to the level of desperate condescension, doing “people things” is a necessary thing for trapos. You don’t see trapos in slums everyday, pointing to brighter futures or carrying children on their shoulders: you see them doing all of those things (and then some) only in election season. Unless Roxas wants to further sink in the trapo traps, he has to do less of it. Or maybe be a more “people things” kind of guy when he actually wins in 2016.
Roxas’s rivals can’t hold a candle to him, if qualifications (and only qualifications) mattered: the education isn’t there, the experience isn’t as up to par, the service record isn’t as strong. And rightly or wrongly, they don’t carry his political pedigree.
Roxas should be that: himself. He should make the media rounds and share his expert opinion on the state of the economy. The dad-shirts have to go, in favor of Presidential couture. He has to stop the song-and-dance numbers and dramatic skits, and play to his strengths as a straight-laced economic expert, public service veteran, and a man who is probably genetically wired to be the President. If the Presidency is his destiny, he should start acting like it’s his, and claim it not only in words, but in actions.
In short, he has to be a Roxas to be President Roxas.
Looking at all of his qualifications—without knowing of his commercials or Facebook pages—you might say that Roxas is the “thinking vote.” Roxas best articulates what the “middle class” desires for in a President. If we are really a nation where affluence grows and traffic is a sign of progress, or a country where choices in white bread are more important than rice supplies, then we need people like Roxas. And if this is Roxas’s last chance at being a President—knowing that this is precisely the chance he gave up on in 2010—then he shouldn’t die on the hill of jingles or dances or random finger-pointing. He should be who he is: the Wharton-educated New York investment banker with political pedigree and over 20 years of experience in public service.
Now whether or not we’re the kind of country that needs someone like Roxas is a different story altogether. More on that when I feel like it, I guess.