Mar Roxas: His own enemy

This is his to lose, and Mar Roxas knows it. 

While he said in a Rappler interview that he’s not scared of losing in 2016 – a lesson from his 2010 defeat, he said – he also made a candid admission: he will be his own enemy in this campaign.

Asked during a roundtable discussion with Rappler on October 29 if he’s afraid of losing again, the standard-bearer of the ruling Liberal Party said: “No. That's the difference in Mar today and in 2010….It's not about me, it's not about my ambition. It's about continuing this fight. This fight is a worthwhile fight….this is not tactical, this is not calculated. I mean, remember that when I did this, I was 3%.”

Roxas was referring to his dismal survey numbers early this year that made many Aquino allies panic and prompted them to persuade the President to junk him and endorse Senator Grace Poe instead. For a time, Roxas was unsure whether Aquino would cave in to the pressure to choose the more popular candidate. The meetings in Malacañang between Aquino and Poe didn’t help assuage his and his aides’ fears. 

He wouldn’t admit that he lost sleep over it, but conceded that “PNoy could have easily said…. [the numbers are on Poe’s side].” 

In the end, the President chose him. Had Aquino endorsed Poe, “I wouldn’t have run,” Roxas admitted.

Taste of defeat

That’s one umbilical cord that ties Roxas to a formidable machinery and immense political capital, but also ropes him in to a situation where he has to constantly defend the past, explain it in great detail, and stay in the shadows of the man whose fate made him abandon his presidential ambitions in 2010.

2016 is a fascinating 3-way race among rivals (minus the flip-flopping Rodrigo Duterte, who said he will make a final decision in December) with each unique storylines.

Of the 3, it’s only Roxas who has tasted electoral defeat. That’s why of the 3, I can believe that he will have the toughest stomach for this campaign. He will treat every single day as election eve. And he’s not some pushover administration candidate like Joe de Venecia or Gilbert Teodoro was. He topped one senatorial race. He almost became vice president. He has baggage, yes, but nothing that he and a campaign team – assuming it’s a smart one – can’t overcome.

“I’d given my all and I would have been very happy not being, not being called to [it] again, you know? There's an old, old poem about being called back to the fray or back to the fight. It was a real alternate, alternative for me,” Roxas told Rappler when asked about his 2010 loss.

Thus after Aquino endorsed him on July 31, it seemed there was no turning back for Roxas: he’s blazed the campaign trail, he’s attended all public events he could muster, he’s pressed thousands of hands, he’s courted countless politicians, he’s sat down in endless meetings, he’s granted all sorts of interviews. 

He’s running like he’s still at 3% (Pulse Asia put him at 20% in September). He’s running like he could lose tomorrow.

This, again, is on account of the lessons from 2010, which he himself captured in one sentence: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Who is his toughest rival in the race, we asked him. 

“I, myself.”

What did he mean? 

“[For me] to make a mistake, right?”

Roxas doesn’t have to stay alert for any mistakes. What he needs to do is to take a step back and see where he is now – which is still far from victory.

Four points for the presidential candidate with the most formidable war chest in town: 

1. Talk presidential, give us the big picture. In his campaign sorties, in his media interviews, in public forums, Roxas dives into depths where no voter would dare go. That’s his comfort zone: dissecting a problem down to its minutest details. I asked him: What decisions have you made based largely on your instincts? He paused for what seemed like eternity before saying: “I will have to give that a good think, but basically instinct is always what's straight out, what's common sense, what's effective, that's basically my instinct whenever I'm confronted with a decision. Zamboanga, I was in Malolos Bulacan, I received a sketchy report in my cellphone that a number of these Muslims were caught with guns and with uniforms, with patches inside Zamboanga City. Two on two together there was a report of a fire fight out in Zamboanga Bay with the navy. Instinct, there is something brewing here, this is all within the context that Misuari was making his caravans around Mindanao. Instinct, I called up Sec Volts, we don't know 2 + 2 = 5 ba ito or ano ba ito, puntahan natin (is this 2 + 2 = 5 or what is this, let's go there), let's go with the front line. True enough, when we got there putukan na, barilan na, bombahan, mortaran (there were explosions, shooting, bombing, mortars). So it's really instinct to be there, that got us there. Yolanda, just go back to Yolanda, it was instinct, we were at Aquinaldo, NDRRMC… So it's really the instincts to get something done to be there. Just to continue with this thread, we were in Borongan Samar, the landfall was in a town north of Borongan, instinct puntahan natin (to go there) because there was communication, nobody could tell the police, nobody could tell what was happening there….So my instinct is to take action, my instinct is to go and find out what can be done and actually do it."

Whew!

This isn’t entirely bad. Fidel Ramos was the same: he’d bore you with pieces of information in a monotonous, lecturing voice. As defense secretary he’d even walked out on reporters who asked questions that piqued him. But when he hit the campaign trail, Ramos changed one thing: he took the long view. He dished out information, yes, but he always connected the dots, situated them in the region and the world. Always. That was his charm despite the dry slogans (unity, solidarity, teamwork) that paled in comparison to Miriam Defensor-Santiago's brilliant prose. He opened our eyes to the rest of the world.

Roxas talks and leaves you with data, information and jargon, not nuggets of wisdom. He leaves you with a specific solution to a specific problem, but doesn’t help you understand what’s at stake. The millennial voter is not a bureaucrat. She wants – and needs – perspective. 

2. Campaigning is connecting. Mar Roxas off-cam is different from Mar Roxas on-cam. This much we’ve witnessed first-hand. In an off-the-record dinner that the Rappler team had with him last June, Roxas talked off-the-cuff, recalled anecdotes that were either funny or sad, cited statistics but just enough for us to chew on, and actually shared certain things that we mulled over long after dinner. In our October 29 interview, Roxas  also provided more insights during the informal chat we had with him than during the live interview. At one point, we complained that his answer to the traffic question during the live interview was too long. He quipped: “But otherwise I'm just giving you two-second sound bites. What's the point?”

But campaigns are basically passionate, emotional endeavors. Brave and admirable is the man who decides not to dumb down and merely entertain his audience. But woe to the man who will defy the wisdom of the crowd: it’s all about connection – in words and in gestures. To put it simply, Roxas has yet to connect.

3. Daang Matuwid can be a trap. This is the core of the campaign of Mar Roxas. It is also its weakness. Liberal Party ideologues have walked us through this path – why Daang Matuwid is the correct strategic foundation of the Roxas campaign, why it strikes at the heart of what this nation deserves, why Aquino’s continuing popularity is the best proof that Daang Matuwid – both as the fuel of the campaign and as its key message – will work for Roxas. 

It will, but only to a certain extent. And only when Roxas will play it smart. 

For now, he allows himself to fall into the trap and get drowned in it – sounding at times defensive, at times self-righteous, at times repetitive, at times like the President. But Daang Matuwid is only the plane to his destination and – I hope he’s aware of this – he is the pilot of that plane. Daang Matuwid is the past, not the future. The future is something that he, as Mar Roxas, should help create with the voters. He can redefine Daang Matuwid for himself and for what he wants to be.

But can he, really? Does he know what he wants to be? It doesn’t show so far, given his failure to give a fresh take on existing policies and his inability to step back, look at issues in a new light, and connect these to our future.

4. Courage takes many forms. Roxas said he’s not for the sound bites. He’s not the bombastic type. That’s true, and for that he's liked by certain sectors. But courting votes also requires one thing: courage. The courage to make a clear stand even on things that have not been clearly thought out, the courage to differ with an Aquino policy and spell out why, the courage to spill words that don’t necessarily follow the Daang Matuwid script.

Roxas has mastered his responses to criticism of the Aquino administration. He has ready statistics and data to disprove accusations here and there. He can spend precious minutes defending an Aquino policy. But he winces at controversies and suddenly is sparse with details when confronted with hard truths and criticism. 

What did his instinct tell him when he learned about Mamasapano, clearly a tragedy that caused a gap between him and Aquino? He said his instinct was to find out what happened. And gives a rundown of the steps he took, sidestepping the core issue: What does he, as a leader, think about the Mamasapano fiasco?

I asked him about what is common knowledge in the Philippine National Police: that the Iglesia ni Cristo is well-entrenched in the Quezon City Police District. He dodged the question. “Wala naman. There are always these rumors.” And went on to talk about his pet project, Lambat-Sibat.

It’s still 6 months away from election day. Roxas himself said it’s too close to call. But in reality he knows what he wants: to run ahead and get to the tipping point.

Defending, detailing, and deflecting won’t get him there. He now has to be his own man – assuming the Daang Matuwid strategy to victory has room for that. – Rappler.com