Column: Restraining the executive

Published on January 8, 2008

By Tuesday night we should have a good idea whether the latest polls had gotten it right, or were skewed by temporary enthusiasm over Barack Obama’s historic win in Iowa. One day before the New Hampshire primary, several polls showed at least a 10-point Obama lead over Hillary Clinton, long the favorite in the state.

A back-to-back win by Obama would be enormous — but it would not hand the freshman senator the Democratic nomination outright. Clinton is too invested, and too well-funded, to slink away. She also does not need to look far for inspiration. Her own husband lost both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992, but went on to win the presidency.

Once upon a time, Hillary may have thought the primaries would be a coronation. Instead, they have turned into a war of attrition. It doesn’t look like even Super Duper Tuesday (Feb. 5, when 24 states, including California, will hold caucuses or primaries) will bring the war to a crashing end.

* * *

Gary Langer, director of polling at ABC News, keeps a blog on his network’s site (http://blogs.abcnews.com/thenumbers). In his post for Jan. 2, he takes a statistically nuanced look at the “quizzical” preeminence of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries. He writes what he calls a “data-based effort to make some small sense of this quadrennial brouhaha”; the effort, essentially an attempt to draw the unrepresentative character of the two states, is worth a close read.

* * *

On colleague Ricky Carandang’s “Big Picture” show last week, I did my bit of small sense-making and reluctant crystal ball-gazing by describing 2008 as “2007, only more so.” By that I meant that the motive forces in politics we saw last year we will see again this year, but in more intense form.

Before the show, I made a list of the top political events of 2007, those I considered truly consequential. The first five suggested themselves naturally.

• The highest-profile, by far, was the midterm election, which showed the true depth of oppositionist sentiment. Despite the continuing failure to put election reforms in place, the electorate was able to hand the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo a face-losing defeat in the national referendum that was the Senate race.

(The most dramatic story out of the election was the improbable victory of priest-on-leave “Among” [Father] Ed Panlilio as governor of Pampanga province over two traditional politicians closely allied with President Arroyo, the province’s favorite daughter.)

• The United Nations sent a special envoy, upon the Arroyo administration’s request, to investigate the wave of extrajudicial killings. Philip Alston’s controversial final report pinpointed the administration’s new counterinsurgency strategy as the cause of most of the killings and condemned a military in deep denial.

• The Supreme Court organized an extraordinary summit on possible legal responses to the extrajudicial killings — and then followed it up only a few months later with the promulgation of the writ of amparo, an unprecedented legal remedy.

• The ZTE controversy wrapped the administration even tighter in the shroud of scandal. The rambunctious Senate hearings helped bring an end to a contract that Malacañang claimed was imperfectly completed anyway; but they also forced Commission on Elections Chairman Benjamin Abalos to resign and claimed the political future of Speaker Jose de Venecia as a casualty.

• The Sumilao cause dramatized the plight of landless farmers shortchanged by a complex legal system and a loophole-ridden agrarian reform program; even more important, it galvanized Catholic bishops and priests into political action.

What do these five political events have in common? In a word: an over-assertive executive, and attempts by other political institutions or political players to restrain it.

In 2007, and despite the lessons administered by the Supreme Court led by then-Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban in 2006, we saw Malacañang continue to push the limits of executive power. In 2008, we can expect more of the same.

In part this strategy recognizes that a political system like ours rewards what businessmen call first-mover advantage. Presumption of regularity means that many policies questioned before the courts remain in effect while the case is being heard. It also means that, all too often, the lag between executive action and opposition response or public reaction is all the time the administration needs, to get what it wants done.

In part, the strategy flows from the nature of the beast: Hounded to near-death in mid-2005, the administration has learned to do everything it can to ensure its survival. If that includes keeping its rivals off-balanced, or probing the outer limits of executive action, then so be it.

* * *

Regular commentary writer Asuncion David Maramba (you can read her today defending the Catholic Church) responded to a couple of columns I had written on Philippine epics in great writerly style. She gave me the gift of a book, the revised edition of her “Early Philippine Literature: From Ancient Times to 1940.” You might find this interesting, she wrote, and added: “It has a section on Epics with annotations and footnotes, some written to me by Fr. [Francis] Lambrecht himself.”

The first edition of the textbook came out in 1971; the revised edition was published by Anvil in 2006. It carries “teaching notes and study guides,” the fruit of Sony Maramba’s 40 years of teaching. The textbook retails for the princely sum of P19.75 — by any measure, an epic steal.

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