MANILA, APRIL 27, 2011 (MANILA STANDARD) Senator Panfilo Lacson, out of the cold and now out of the blue, has announced that he is willing to serve on President Noynoy Aquino's Cabinet if he is asked. The last time Lacson served anyone other than himself (on paper, at least), a certain "Bigote" resigned, of course. Why Lacson has suddenly declared that he wants a Cabinet job—something that, he made clear, has not been offered to him —only he can explain. Perhaps he realizes that, under a friendly administration, he no longer needs to bear the burden of being a member of the opposition in the Senate nor feel obligated to exhort the people to "be not afraid."

So why not join the Cabinet and drop the pretense? Anyway, this moro-moro between Aquino and Lacson is getting to be really old.

Lacson's joining the Cabinet will certainly make things even more uncomfortable for Leila de Lima, who nominally handles the Justice portfolio. If Lacson gets a job in the Executive, he can sit across Justice Secretary Leila de Lima during the infrequent meetings of Aquino's official family and try to stare her into admitting that it's useless to try to undermine him before the Boss.

We don't know if this development will lead to the resignation of De Lima from the Cabinet—something she hinted about broadly the first time Aquino gave her the bureaucratic equivalent of a bitch-slapping when he ignored the recommendations of the independent investigating committee she headed that probed the Rizal Park hostage killings. Last we heard, De Lima has decided to ignore her boss' propensity to overrule her because she wants to run for a Senate seat in 2013.

That's supposedly why De Lima has chosen to be quiet after Lacson, whom she had been ordered to bring in when the senator was still a self-styled "fugitive from injustice," simply went over her head upon resurfacing and met his alleged benefactor in the Palace one on one. De Lima, in the unfamiliar role of the cuckold, only looked pathetic when she insisted that she was still going after the senator.

Our own view is that De Lima would make a fine senator, since she has already proven that she possesses the intestinal fortitude required to serve in the Cabinet. Also, if she trades places with Lacson, Aquino will no longer have to pretend that he just exchanges recipes with his favorite former colleague whenever they meet—and De Lima can chuck the role of the jilted justice secretary once and for all.

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While he hasn't yet declared his plans for Lacson, President Noynoy Aquino has apparently already decided—and right before the Church's most solemn holidays, no less—to challenge the Catholic hierarchy on the issue of reproductive health. At a time when Aquino's popularity ratings are falling and more and more people are starting to groan under the weight of immense economic pressures, the President went off on a search for more people to alienate.

But Aquino's renewed attack on the Church on the RH issue is ironic since Catholics and their hierarchy actually form a significant part of his political base. By making Church leaders accept his version of state-funded programs on contraception and sex education, Aquino is forcing the anti-family planning bishops, religious and Catholic laity, many of whom supported him in the last elections, into a doctrinal corner from which they are left with no choice but to fight back.

Indeed, how will the Church leaders who embraced Aquino's campaign last May explain to their faithful, their fellow clerics and even to themselves that their champion has now turned against them? And how else can Aquino expect the Church to respond to his dare to excommunicate him, if necessary, as long as he gets to ease poverty by ramming a reproductive health law through Congress, except with threats of their own?

Aquino is apparently counting on the pro-choice sector of the population to rally to him under the banner his new crusade. But if the result of this is deeper division among a populace that has not yet really moved on from the polarizing effect of the recent national election, then one has to wonder if Aquino's new fight will only end in less unity and consensus and more unending fractiousness and gridlock.

While Aquino's previous battles were almost always political in nature, this one is different. Aquino has ventured into territory where he may finally have bitten off more than he can chew—and from which he may suffer long-term strategic damage even if he succeeds tactically.

And then there is the matter of mustering support in Congress for Aquino's RH measure. Will our congressmen and senators follow Malacañang's lead on the issue of reproductive health?

Political wisdom tells us that while there is really no such thing as a "Catholic vote," in the bloc-voting sense of that term, the Church has always figured prominently in movements to severely hamstring politicians and even remove entire administrations. This is why, apart from a handful of congressmen committed to the RH cause, not a lot of members of Congress can be expected to join Aquino in waging war against the Church.

This isn't the impeachment of Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez, which Aquino engineered with ease in the House through a majority that saw little to lose and everything to gain by toeing the Palace line. This is endangering the political survival of individual congressmen in their own districts, especially in areas where the Church is still a major force.

The anti-Aquino brickbats started flying in earnest during the Holy Week, as pulpits were used nationwide to body-slam Aquino before packed congregations.

Did Aquino really have to pick a fight with the Church at this time? And does he still have time to reverse the damage he brought upon himself?

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To be sure, we see signs that the Palace is already trying to stage a retreat after Aquino made his courageous, if ultimately ill-advised, dare in front of the graduates of the University of the Philippines right before Palm Sunday. A presidential spokesman, over the Easter weekend, has said that the Palace still doesn't have a final draft of the RH bill that Aquino says he will submit to Congress, and that there is no deadline for its submission.

Perhaps Aquino has finally realized that he may have erred in challenging the Church at this time, when people need their government to come to their aid to cushion the blows of the ever-escalating prices of gasoline and everything else. Perhaps he worries, belatedly, that he may not get the numbers in Congress that will be sufficient to pass his pet measure.

Maybe Aquino is starting to comprehend that he cannot be a President who sows division, especially in these jittery times. Maybe he is finally coming around to the idea that, regardless of his own political views, he needs to be less combative and more consensus-building, less partisan and more unifying, now that he is President of all Filipinos.

Or maybe Aquino is only now coming to the conclusion that whatever he says as President has repercussions that go beyond his intended audience. At the very least, Aquino must now understand that he cannot make crowd-pleasing statements to one group of people, if it will get him into trouble with other who aren't right in front of him. For his sake, we hope that he does.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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