The Three Faces of Criticizing the President

How Isko Moreno hit the spot when criticizing the President

September 8, 2021 felt like the first day of the campaign. It, too, is the first day after the end of ghost month which political candidates are superstitious about. Today is also the birthday of the Virgin Mary in this Catholic country, and as of writing, we are being ravaged by torrential rains due to a typhoon.

Even if these are the circumstances, politics never sleeps. That’s why today we have seen the following events unfold:

  1. The official launch of the Lacson-Sotto campaign.
  2. The PDP-Laban (Cusi wing) National Convention which is expected to officially nominate Pres. Rodrigo Duterte for Vice President.
  3. Sen. Manny Pacquiao’s press conference talking about greed and his dream to bring housing to all informal settlers in 3–5 years, without saying he’s running for president.
  4. Former Sen. Bongbong Marcos’s press conference talking about his 2022 plans and how he’ll beat Leni Robredo if a rematch happens next year.
  5. Manila Mayor Isko Moreno’s press conference where he criticized the government’s pandemic response and stated that “he’ll face Duterte in October.”

Political events tend to play tug-of-war with one another in bagging headlines. Even when we had an actual campaign launch for the presidency today, the Manila Mayor’s press conference is making the most buzz right now. That’s because today, someone is finally criticizing the president in the right way.

How we’ve been attacking Duterte and why it never worked

There are three kinds of attacks that opponents of the President have been using. The first is the Leni method: “we need to test and trace!” The second is the Lacson/Sotto method: “we need leadership, our priorities are misplaced!” The third is the Isko method.

Before we get to breaking each method down, we have to examine the voter. It’s common for one to paint the picture of the bobotante in this day and age. When this administration has been so inept in their pandemic response, it’s a no-brainer that you should be against them by now. You’d usually here that statement from liberal circles on social media. The thing is, we’re all getting it wrong.

One of the earliest works on this is Samuel Popkins’ The Reasoning Voter. In essence, a voter is capable of low information rationality because politics really just isn’t their number one priority. This doesn’t make them irresponsible or stupid, it’s just a reality of life. Take for example what an average Filipino voter would be like now (note: this is my personal qualitative assumption): he is jobless for the 3rd time because of the 3rd lockdown, is barely able to make ends meet, wants to get vaccinated but has not yet been texted by his LGU, and is wondering when this pandemic would end. Of course, politics may have crossed the his mind but he doesn’t have any time nor is he willing to put in high effort to read up on news articles or pay close attention to the news. So when the President throws off some one-liner soundbites while opposition politicians throw out hifalutin jargons against him, the logical outcome is for them to use what they have in processing the information. Obviously, the president will always win with his punchlines which work like three-punch combos.

This concept is called political heuristics where voters, who are capable of low information rationality to make their choices, use shortcuts to make a rational decision. This is usually the case when forming campaign messages. They look for an issue that matters to them and find someone to vote who heuristically represents that issue. They use either their rational senses or their gut feel, based on the information that’s given to them. So the cardinal rule is that not all information out there will be used by all voters. They will pick what is easy to absorb and what they understand. Not all voters are responsible university students. Most have their own lives to attend to — but they’re fully aware of their civic duty and the consequences of their non-participation.

The Leni Method

Vice President Leni Robredo is one of the first to criticize our government’s pandemic response. Her most common theme is that the Philippines has not yet reached its daily target amount of COVID-19 tests and that our contact tracing efforts are virtually non-existent. Content-wise, the VP is correct. There’s nothing wrong about the message in terms of how this should be our approach in handling the pandemic. My problem is how this will be appreciated by the public.

University students, social media-active healthcare workers, and white collar professionals are Leni’s usual voting demographic, that’s a fact. Now when she spews “test and trace,” these people will automatically understand what she means. They’re probably all made aware by educational posts on Facebook or Twitter about the benefits of mass testing and efficient tracing in South Korea, Taiwan, and New Zealand. Their educational background puts them in a position where they would know what it’s like to end this pandemic.

Let’s go back to the average voter I introduced earlier. He probably won’t appreciate “test” and “trace” because of what it means in their context. Working-class Filipinos are afraid of getting tested because testing positive means they won’t be able to work. Getting traced also has the same effect. They don’t want that for them, so why would they buy that solution?

Now you see how a truthful message can be broken down by a simple difference in schema.

The Lacson-Sotto Method

Sometime around 2021, Ping Lacson and Tito Sotto began talking about their “we neither oppose nor support the President” stances. They began to attack the unused Bayanihan 2 funds, the DOH’s failures and corrupt practices, and just today, the President’s leadership. Their campaign line is “we need a leader.” How strong is this message?

Well, for one, I personally could not find where Lacson and Sotto will get their base votes from. I say this both geographically and demographically. Beyond that, I think what speaks volumes about their message is how eerily familiar it is with the Duterte brand in 2016. Rodrigo Duterte was the first to tell the country that we need real and tough leadership. We all know now where that got us.

If an average voter examines this brand which goes on two parts: (1) “we need a leader” and (2) “we need to properly direct our priorities,” think of the voter as a consumer. He won’t consume the word “leader” because Ping and Tito are both weak brands. If for anything, they are images of their past — something Filipinos have already forgotten by now. Ping’s image as a police chief was already more than 20 years ago. Tito’s image as an experienced politician excites only a few since experience is a weak basis for voters to vote on. The point? Since voters prefer shortcuts, they can’t figure out what kind of “leader” these two will be. Or if they already do, they don’t like it. The tandem rarely sparks joy.

Another angle here is that if we truly need a leader, ano na ang nagawa mo? They’re banking on experience when these politicians were unfelt during the pandemic in delivering them basic necessities. Of course, we all know Senators don’t do executive work, but an average voter doesn’t want to factor that in. All politicians must give them solutions. So if they juxtapose Ping-Tito’s message to a Duterte soundbite, Duterte wins on the basis of the anong nagawa mo? mentality.

The Isko Method

Isko Moreno’s message was not built overnight. It was not made on Arroceros Park earlier this morning. It is a part of a well-orchestrated political message. This is why it was so effective in convincing people.

His angle was more specific and simple: “buy remdisivir and tocilizumab, not face shields” and “please do your job because we are doing ours well here.”

Isko Moreno’s brand was already well-established, at least within the more masa demographic on Facebook and Youtube. He’s a Mayor who delivers and delivers fast as portrayed in many of his public appearances. He built a field hospital in 52 days, broke ground on several vertical housing projects in Manila, and changed the game in vaccinating Manilans.

A week ago, the Mayor announced that the city has purchased heaps of remdisivir and tocilizumab which will be made available to anyone who needs it — whether or not you are from Manila. He also announced all non-Manila residents can be vaccinated in their city. Lahat yayakapin natin. Those were his words.

He did this in the context of a surge in COVID-19 cases, the lack of hospital beds in NCR, and the shortage of supply in remdisivir and tocilizumab around the country. At the same time, the government is under fire for purchasing high-priced face shields from Chinese firms connected to Duque and Bong Go.

His timing was perfect to spew flames: people are beginning to question the usefulness of face shields and are already annoyed about this 3rd lockdown. So the two usual rebuttals of Duterte won’t work: he can’t say reklamador si Isko because the man has been doing his job well in Manila, people find it hard to hate him. He also can’t say walang nagawa si Isko for the same reasons. Couple that with Isko’s use of non-jargonistic words (save for the medicine brands, I think people got the message anyway).

What made the difference here is that here’s a guy who did his part and is doing well in his city who can easily demonstrate to the people what’s supposed to be done. Leni couldn’t do that because of her reputation and the message she carries. Ping and Tito can’t do that because they aren’t executives.

So when an average voter looks at Isko, he uses the following shortcuts:

First, Isko represents a Mayor from the masses. He was once like the voter. That opens up a soft spot.

Second, Isko hits home with a tangible, everyday item: face shields. Look around at how average Filipinos turn face shields into headbands. They know how annoying it is. So they’ll automatically agree with the message.

Third, the guy has a case study to provide to everyone. Isko Moreno owns the Manila model of pandemic response.

The first actions of Isko (building hospitals and condominiums) was a way to stimulate the sana taga-Maynila ako sentiment. The next actions (opening Manila to non-Manilans) were to demonstrate to everyone how it’s possible that they can have it too. So the final step is to drive the message and say “am I not the better leader here?”

Hence, the President has no clothes. Which is possibly why he’s resorting to simply attacking Isko Moreno’s past pictures in briefs. He can’t find an opening to discredit the man.

We now have the perfect message and message-bearer. It’s now time to get rid of the demons of Malacañang.

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I’m Marco Terrado, a 4th Year Political Science student in UP Diliman and this is where I dump a bunch of thoughts I have about politics | _jmterrado on Twitter