Published on April 7, 2009
No, this is not an attempt to add to the literature of “warm spit”—the practice, begun by the Americans, of minimizing the importance of the second-highest office within the gift of the electorate. In the first place, John Nance Garner’s famous quip (the US vice presidency is not worth “a pitcher of warm spit,” he said) may have had some traction during his time as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second wheel; it does not apply to the United States today. Al Gore reinvented the office, and the imperial Dick Cheney used it as base to assert an over-aggressive executive.
Secondly, the charge of political irrelevance does not apply with as much force to Philippine politics. Even the famously self-effacing Sergio Osmeña continued to dominate Visayan politics under Manuel Quezon’s shadow. And ultimate political power was also always within sight. Since the Commonwealth era, six of the country’s 12 vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency: Osmeña, Elpidio Quirino, Carlos Garcia, Diosdado Macapagal, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
With the possible exception of Osmeña, who was Quezon’s only political peer, it is possible to argue that no vice-presidential candidate has ever been a decisive factor in the election of his presidential running mate. Indeed, the Philippine tradition of electing a vice president from a party other than or in opposition to that of the president is already half a century old, dating to Macapagal’s vice-presidential victory in 1957.
This, of course, is the opposite of the present-day American set-up, which bundles running mates as one ticket. Under this kind of system, geographical balance or other such considerations are crucial in forging a ticket. (In the Philippines, at least since 1986, the effort to balance a ticket inevitably collapses under the pressure of a politics of popularity.)
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Osmeña’s example in the election of Quezon in 1935—he would have been a much tougher political foe than Emilio Aguinaldo or Gregorio Aglipay, in the unlikely event he had decided to contest the election—has become the dominant template since 1986.
Which brings me to my hypothesis: 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.
Consider the following:
1986 Snap Election. When Ferdinand Marcos called a sudden election, Salvador Laurel was the preeminent politically active opposition leader. The need at the moment, however, was for the opposition to coalesce around the moral figure of the assassinated hero’s widow. Whether he made that need his own has always been one of history’s imponderables. If Laurel had decided to run, the opposition would have certainly lost to Marcos. The first task of Corazon Aquino and those around her, then, was to convince Laurel to run as her candidate for vice president.
1998 Elections. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Senate topnotcher in 1995, wanted to gun for the presidency itself in 1998, but, in a famous and now irony-drenched meeting with Jaime Cardinal Sin, she was persuaded to downscale her ambition. If I remember the surveys correctly, however, it was only Arroyo who had a chance of running even with Estrada in the popularity game. With Arroyo out, and at least two other major candidates for president decided on running (I mean Jose de Venecia and Raul Roco), it was no longer necessary for the popular Estrada to narrow the field. But, with the benefit of convenient hindsight, it now seems clear that Arroyo’s decision to slide down as De Venecia’s running mate worked ultimately in Estrada’s favor.
2004 Elections. Before Fernando Poe Jr. entered the presidential race, Noli de Castro was a clear leader in the surveys. If he had remained in the contest, and with some institutional backing, he could have made the race a real three-way cliffhanger. What Arroyo did was to effectively narrow the field to Poe and herself, by persuading De Castro to retire from the race altogether. It was a cold, even cynical maneuver, as Inquirer editorials and columns at the time noted. But today no one will dispute that it was effective.
The only exception I can think of that can possibly falsify my hypothesis is the case of Joseph Estrada in 1992—but let’s leave that for another day.
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Fast-forward to 2010.
In survey after survey of possible presidential candidates, De Castro is once again in the lead. But again, his accommodationist reputation and his relative lack of political weight render him vulnerable to persuasion of the vice-presidential kind. The first task of someone like his friend and rival Manny Villar is to persuade him to step aside.
The same task faces Senators Loren Legarda and Mar Roxas. Legarda must convince her party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition, that the younger Chiz Escudero should run as her vice-presidential candidate, by dangling before the NPC the prospect of 12 straight years in Malacañang. Roxas must convince Legarda herself, or De Castro, or perhaps the unclassifiable Ping Lacson—in other words, his allies in the opposition—to step aside. Before they can add, they must first subtract.