What the Duterte-Roxas duel says about both men (& their followers)

The descent into madness has begun. It started with Mar Roxas calling Davao’s peace and order credentials into question, and Mayor Duterte threatening to slap him if he dared show his face in Davao, while questioning the veracity of Roxas’ academic credentials.

To an onlooker, the exchange looks childish, immature and pedantic. Both camps name calling the other. Each side digging their heels into their respective positions. Their reactions reveal a lot about themselves: what they value, their self-identity, and their perceptions of “the other”.

Mar Roxas could have focused his attack (as others have) on Duterte’s human rights record. That would have gotten him nowhere. The allure of Duterte to the electorate as evidenced by his taking the lead in preferential polls comes from his tough, hardline stance against crime. His methods may be questionable, but no one can argue with the results.

That was until Roxas stepped in and started to play “mythbuster” to Davao’s law and order record. Citing statistics during Duterte’s stint in office, he audaciously claimed that crime actually rose rather than fell, under his watch. This would have incensed the mayor and residents of Davao who take pride in the reputation of their city as a safe haven on the troubled island of Mindanao.

It probably was unintended, but Roxas’ remarks were offensive to many Davaoenos who vented their anger and disgust at the former interior secretary (we can’t repeat their colorful language here). He has had such problems before, issuing statements that come back to bite him, such as his congratulatory remarks to Zamboanga on the anniversary of the siege that occurred there, or his “bahala kayo sa buhay niyo” (you’re on your own) comment to the mayor of Tacloban in the aftermath of the Yolanda super typhoon.

Roxas’ barbs would have felt like a slap in the face to Duterte. The two presidential contenders had been pals back when Roxas needed the mayor’s support. He even had some kind words to say back then regarding Duterte’s performance as a city executive and even courted him to be on his ticket. Roxas, the perennial laggard in preferential polls, needed to hit Duterte and hit him hard, and he finally found a way to do that.

The response from Duterte was equally threatening. This in turn elicited reactions from Roxas and his surrogates.

From Roxas came a challenge to a fistfight (Duterte quickly escalated it to a duel). Roxas who has been characterized as a lapdog of President Aquino, who would not stand up for himself even when he was bypassed and left out of the planning for the Mamasapano operation, and who would not distinguish himself as an individual in seeking the president’s endorsement, needed to show he was no pushover. It was schoolyard antics at its finest.

From his surrogates came another response: mostly ridicule for the way Duterte and his followers seemed to be interpreting the words “graduate” and “undergraduate” and whether the label “graduate of Wharton” properly referred to a person who has earned a bachelor’s degree in economics or an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania.

Both responses actually work against Roxas. Just when he started to steer the debate towards a rational, evidence-based policy discussion, he allowed himself to be dragged down into gutter politics.

Those who took Duterte’s side could not have cared less about the finer points of the debate. To them, the words from Roxas about the “myth” of Davao’s safety record and that of his defenders calling them “bobo” (stupid) over their misunderstanding of the words “graduate of Wharton” would have poured scorn, and sounded the way Spanish friars and landed aristocracy used to curse at the “indolent Indios”, implying they lacked the resourcefulness to fact-check.

It is well worth noting that the election will actually be determined by such voters who belong to the bottom 40% of the income ladder. This particular demographic wouldn’t really care about academic credentials or pedigrees for high office, as much as performance that produces results that they can feel on the ground.

Although Roxas and his supporters may think they have won the debate based on its merits, they have actually damaged their brand and placed themselves at a disadvantage by polarizing this key segment of the electorate whom they need to court to win. This debate was not about who was right or wrong, or about who possessed the correct “facts”. It was ultimately about public perception.

Perception is everything in politics. One candidate attacks another on his record. This elicits a visceral response from the one whose credibility is being maligned. It quickly becomes very personal. As the muck-raking starts, voters get turned off. The person who suffers most is the one who tried to gain the moral high ground but instead gets dragged through the mud. In the end, certain perceptions about each candidate gets cemented in people’s minds.

In this case, the public persona of Duterte has not been tarnished one bit. People already know him for shooting his mouth off. For Roxas, the cerebral candidate, his emotional response to Duterte shows how easily he can digress from his script. The public’s perceptions of him being aloof and having a tin ear were also reinforced. There is a lesson to be learned here about setting the right tone of the debate that plays to your strengths. That lesson has been lost amidst the contest of who can “mansplain” the loudest.