Losing the VP race might yet be the best thing to have happened to Mar Roxas.
With the one year ban on appointing losing candidates at the 2010 elections expired, the focus now turns to where the president plans to put his former running mate within his Cabinet and what duties and functions to assign him.
It is no secret that before “Cory magic” took over the presidential race, Mar Roxas was the better placed of the two to run the country. He had a far superior legislative record matched by sterling academic and professional credentials. He had the better machinery to back his candidacy and was more rounded as an individual, having settled into married life.
The reversal of roles between Noy and Mar is a case of how the office often chooses the person, not the other way around. Mr Aquino never intended, nor was he prepared, to run for higher office in 2010. He was quite content just to finish his term as a senator in 2013 before considering it.
At first, it was PNoy’s candidacy that seemed imperiled by his rival Sen Manny Villar. Mar’s lead in the vice presidential field seemed unassailable. As the campaign wore on, he seemed to throw the weight of his political machinery behind the election of Noynoy rather than his own. As it turns out, he was blind-sided by the dark horse candidacy of Jejomar Binay.
The present quagmire
A year into the presidency of PNoy, and again the benign one seems to be in peril. In a previous three-part series, I attempted to outline precisely what the problems besetting him were.
Very briefly, I would like to summarize them as follows:
- the president came to office armed with platitudes, but without a plan,
- his team exhibited a lot of dysfunction, and not enough organization, and
- his party drafted a contract, but lacked commitment.
One thing sorely lacking at this point is strategic focus. There are a lot of moving parts within the administration, but no one seems to be coordinating the effort and thinking outside the box in search of solutions to roadblocks. This is the usual problem of dealing with an unwieldy government bureaucracy.
The president as I recommended needs a chief strategist within the office of the president to perform this function. In my view Mar Roxas would be the best person to fulfill that role. The fact that the president is planning to elevate the position of chief of staff (the role he is eyeing for Roxas) would give him the stature to work with fellow cabinet secretaries.
The commentary surrounding this appointment has focused on the potential tension that it would create. As Amando Doronila writes in today’s front-page story for the Inquirer
The position of chief of staff has no line functions vested in a regular Cabinet portfolio. Its functions are still vague and could overlap those of the executive secretary in particular. This ambiguity offers conflict areas that are likely to spark friction between several Cabinet departments.
What Doronila is referring to is the question of turf or silos and organizational heft or stature in order to be visible to the public and use his position as a launching pad for the presidency in 2016. Erap Estrada did this with the Presidential Anti-Crime Task Force, and so did Gloria Arroyo with the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
The fact that Mar Roxas lost to the populist yet competent Jojo Binay due to perceptions of elitism on his part given his pedigree in political and business circles makes the portfolio selection fraught with difficulty. His skill sets equip him to be in a sort of finance or trade portfolio. Many indeed thought he would revert to his old stomping ground as secretary of the DTI.
The political calculation he has to make is whether that would give him the kind of exposure, and more importantly, the kind of impact with ordinary citizens to beat vice president Binay in 2016. A technocratic position probably won’t do the trick, which makes him vulnerable at this juncture.
Although when he was in charge of DTI, Mar took some very populist stances on consumer protection and later on as a senator against the expanded VAT law, Vice President Binay already occupies a highly visible and popular role as the head of the housing program and as special envoy in charge of overseas Filipino worker concerns (the roles that former VP Kabayan Noli De Castro performed). Taking on a similar role like DSWD secretary might be considered pandering too much to the electorate and not a “good fit” for Mr Roxas.
Chief of staff (of what?)
To make him chief of staff in charge of strategic policy development and coordination as distinct from implementation which is the role of the executive secretary would make enormous sense given the state that the PNoy presidency is in. If Mr Roxas becomes successful in this role, it would serve both his interests and that of the president.
Being able to contrast the “before” and “after” situation (assuming he turns things around) would build his credentials as a frontrunner in the presidential race of 2016. A co-presidency would be the ideal way to frame it. It would display his ability to run the government, not quite as commander-in-chief, but something very akin to it.
One of the areas which demands a lot of attention now, where a big gap exists, has to do with the coordination of contracts involving strategic projects. Although the departments of finance and transport are separately attending to their respective functions in this area, no one is working to ensure that these actions sit within a broader strategic roadmap for the country’s development.
The second thing that Mar could focus on as chief of staff would be to work with these departments to ensure a timely, well-coordinated management of projects. While the NEDA is the current agency tasked with developing the Medium Term Development Plan and currently screens and assesses development projects in line with it, the agency does not have the authority to follow through nor monitor and evaluate how different line agencies implement these projects.
Having someone situated in a central agency like the office of the president with a senior cabinet level position would help to drive this developmental blueprint further. The fact that Mr Roxas ran with PNoy as his official runningmate, would give him tenure within cabinet, allowing him to be treated as “primus inter pares” or the “first among equals.”
Despite Doronila’s qualms that the chief of staff would not have the kind of organizational heft that a line agency chief has for either delivering programs or regulating industry, the role that Roxas could play as chief of staff could be just the sort of thing that is currently lacking in cabinet.
The third area that Mar could be made responsible for was again identified (correctly this time in my view) by Doronila, which was
As Liberal Party president, he could help the President develop the party as a political vehicle through which to articulate programs and policies as a foundation for a strong party system.
This as I also wrote in the conclusion of my previous three part piece was something that needed to be developed in the administration. Institutionalizing policy development within the Liberal party as distinct from the government would help ensure that “credible commitment” is mustered in support of the president’s social contract.
The lack of support currently around important, some would say flagship, policies and programs like the expansion of the conditional cash transfers and the Reproductive Health and Responsible Parenting bill among party members is something that needs to be dealt with at the party level before it gets put on the agenda.
Those that sought to capitalize on the huge popularity then of candidate Aquino should not be allowed to oppose him now on principle after having leapt from their previous party affiliations to join him in the Liberal Party.
There should be a system of party discipline to enforce the official party line on key reform areas. Consequences for going rogue have to be clearly delineated and enforced. “Rule of law” which was one of PNoy’s key planks as a candidate has to begin within his own backyard, so to speak. Mr Roxas would be in a good position to make it work.
Had he won the vice presidency, Mr Roxas would have, in all likelihood, been given a cabinet portfolio in keeping with his technocratic skills and competencies. That would have meant probably heading up either the finance or trade department. This would have locked him in for six years into a very distant, unappealing role as far as the electorate is concerned.
The vice presidency is a very precarious position to be in particularly for a party-mate of the president. Prior to Martial Law, presidents Osmena, Quirino and Garcia took over under extraordinary circumstances after their predecessors Quezon, Roxas and Magsaysay died while serving their term. Diosdado Macapagal was the only VP that became president through the normal course of an election, but he did not belong to the same party as Pres Garcia.
In the post-EDSA age, Erap Estrada and Gloria Arroyo only succeeded in using the vice presidency as a springboard to the presidency by distancing themselves from the incumbent. The fate of former VP Noli De Castro who was loyal to Mrs Arroyo until the end shows just how precarious occupying the position is.
Had Mar Roxas won the vice presidency, he would have probably been similarly situated. Having to serve in some departmental strait jacket, unable to steer the ship of state to arrest a falling out with the people, his presidential ambitions would have sunk along with the growing unpopularity of his party-mate president.
This risk still presents itself to him if he assumes the role of chief of staff, but at least in that role, he will have a greater level of control over the outcome of the PNoy presidency (assuming it is defined along the principles outlined here). The upside to all this is that if he is able to turn things around for the benign one, he stands to gain from it the most. In the final analysis, losing the vice presidency might yet be the best thing to have happened to Mar Roxas.