Learning from a Clinton

Learning from a Clinton

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james-himenezHALF past three on Monday morning, Hillary Clinton posted on Twitter, “I’m running for president. Every day Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.” A few minutes later, she tweeted, “I’m hitting the trail to earn your vote.”

Note how she said “I want.” None of that “public clamor” rhetoric we so often hear coming from our local politicians. This presidential candidate took ownership—and, more important, personal responsibility—for her decision to run for office.

When a politician claims that he is running as a response to a public clamor, he is portraying himself as a kind of reluctant seeker of the position, conformably with the Filipino aesthetic of overweening modesty.

There is no denying that this tactic will work on some voters. In a political situation, however, invoking public clamor comes very close to being disingenuous. Running for office will always be a personal decision and, whether we admit it or not, whatever public demand there might be will probably only serve to boost the intention that was already there to begin with.

It is also undeniable, however, that invoking the will of the people as a justification for running for office provides a kind of blanket justification for everything the candidate eventually does in pursuit of his ambition. Illegal postering, for instance, can now be conveniently blamed on “overeager supporters,” as one local presidential candidate once said.

More obliquely, claiming to simply be “giving the people what they want” provides a ready-made justification for refuting a loss at the polls. After all, the argument goes, how can you possibly lose when it was the voters who wanted you to run in the first place? This sort of logic, I am sad to say, lies at the heart of many claims of having been cheated out of a win.

It seems obvious to me, therefore, that a candidate who admits to what he wants is preferable over someone who can’t even come clean about his own ambition. With that honesty comes the assumption of responsibility for the outcome of the elections. Rather than shifting the burden of winning onto the electorate (“Hey! You wanted me to run, so make me win!”), or to some other external force (like, say, a cheating election-management body), such a candidate makes it clear that if he loses, then it’s he at least bears part of the fault.

Note also how Clinton subsequently tweeted that she was hitting the campaign trail “to earn” the people’s vote.

Locally, I think we would all benefit from hearing more such assurances from candidates, that they do not consider themselves, de facto, entitled to a victory. Admittedly, assurances can be as empty as air, but at the very least, to hear a candidate declaring that he intends to “earn” his victory sends several crucial messages that might make us feel more comfortable about ticking off their names on the ballot.

First, a candidate who acknowledges the need to earn votes takes upon himself the burden of proving to the voters that he deserves to win. If a candidate feels this way, then perhaps he will be more conscious of the need to act beyond all reproach in all things—such as in matters involving compliance with campaign rules. On the other hand, a candidate who doesn’t feel the need to prove himself is more likely to just rely on the love that he believes voters have for him. On one level, this empowers such a candidate to play fast and loose with small inconveniences, like spending caps and premature campaigning; on another level, this candidate will—when called to account—be probably be more than willing to cling to his position because “the people don’t want me to go.”

Second, when you say you need to earn someone’s vote, you are implicitly admitting that voters are intelligent and can be swayed by reason. With any sort of luck, such a candidate will probably think twice about sending singing celebrities and dancing girls as campaign proxies. More significantly, he might even be more inclined to presenting the voters with an actual platform of government—one that coherently describes what he seeks to achieve as an elected leader, rather than a motley collection of motherhood statements no one in his right mind would object to.

Implicitly, he also admits that some voters might actually disagree with his assessment of himself. If more politicians truly thought this way, then, perhaps, that ancient joke about how no one loses an election in the Philippines (We wuz robbed!) can finally be consigned to the dustbin of history.

So, how to summarize my predawn learning? The way politicians view voters, the way they address voters and, ultimately, how they value voters—these should be critical elements in the electorate’s decision-making process.


James Jimenez is the spokesman of the Commission on Elections.