The problem with Fukuda

The DPJ’s Nagashima Akihisa, writing at his blog, cites Max Weber’s “Politics as a vocation” to criticize not just Mr. Fukuda but his predecessors and express his hope for a different style of politics under DPJ rule.

Mr. Nagashima quotes from the concluding paragraph of the essay:

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth –that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.

Mr. Fukuda, he argues, feels no passion. Mr. Abe, meanwhile, felt plenty of passion — driven by the certainty that he, and no one else, had the right ideas for Japan’s future — but was lacking in judgment, leading to poor personnel decisions, an inability to respond to events, and an aloofness to the interests of the Japanese. Mr. Nagashima is more charitable to Mr. Koizumi, whom, he argues, had both judgment and passion as prime minister. The problem was that Mr. Koizumi’s politics were “fireworks” politics, flashy but with little enduring substance.

Mr. Nagashima concludes that for the DPJ to succeed, it must hew to these principles. It must dedicate itself to improving the livelihood of the people, continuing on “in spite of everything.”

There is considerable merit in his description of the qualities and failings of the current and recent LDP governments. For my part, I thought Mr. Fukuda’s “passionless” politics would be an improvement following the frenetic politics of Messrs. Koizumi and Abe. I thought by draining the theatricality from politics, he would adjust the government’s priorities and begin making the case, patiently and without hyperbole, for structural change needed to reinvigorate Japan.

At this point, it looks like I was wrong. Mr. Fukuda has been so low key that he has disappeared. After stabilizing the LDP and the coalition with Komeito, he has failed to begin articulating a way forward for his government, his party, and the country.

Mr. Fukuda, I think, belongs to the cautious tendency within the LDP. One can divide the LDP a number of ways, but I think one of the most important divisions going forward is between risk-takers and risk-avoiders. Mr. Koizumi was a risk-taker par excellence, both domestically and internationally. His gambling led to his ultimate gamble, that of risking his government’s majority in the hope of gaining a mandate for postal privatization. The landslide victory in September 2005 has somewhat obscured the reality that there were real concerns that Mr. Koizumi’s government would not receive a simple majority of seats in the House of Representatives, let alone the two-thirds majority that it eventually received.

But the most revealing moment from the summer and autumn 2005 may not have been the drama-filled election campaign but the decision made by the LDP executive council in late June to force Mr. Koizumi — on the basis of an unprecedented majority vote in the council, instead of a unanimous decision — to accept revisions to the six bills for postal privatization. The party elders, fearful of the consequences to the LDP of Mr. Koizumi’s uncompromising push for postal privatization, thought that the key to minimizing the risk to the party was corralling the passion of Mr. Koizumi.

Once Mr. Koizumi departed, if not before then, the party was back in the hands of the risk-averse elders, who thought the key to restoring balance was the superficially pleasing Abe Shinzo. The failure of the Abe cabinet can be chalked up to misdirected passion. Mr. Abe, for all his passion, never risked anything. The revision of the fundamental law on education? Elevating the JDA to ministry status? The political consequences of these measures were limited. Even the constitutional referendum law was not particularly harmful to the government. The problem was in heeding the advice of the risk avoiders and backing away from both structural reform and efforts to heal the pain of structural reform, by, say, acting swiftly to fix the welfare system. I remain convinced that Mr. Abe — or those who whispered in his ear — did just about nothing from the time he took office until the July Upper House election because he sought to avoid the risks associated with Koizumi-style reform politics.

Mr. Fukuda, it seems, is just as incapable of taking the risks to transform the economy and political systems as Mr. Abe was, but for different reasons. I do not think the divided Diet is the primary reason. A bolder leader might find a way to present a vision to the public and use public support to force a recalcitrant DPJ to either cooperate or watch the government pass legislation over Upper House opposition. Mr. Fukuda has almost made a point of not presenting a program for his government. (MTC gets at the problem here: Mr. Fukuda has been so wrapped up in finishing what Mr. Abe started on the anti-terror bill that not only has he been able to articulate an alternative approach to this issue, he has been unable to articulate policies on other issues, including the lingering pensions problem.)

There is nothing inherently wrong with a “low posture” that drains some of the energy from politics, but a low posture cannot mean the absence of policy. Mr. Fukuda may have one more chance to correct this, at the start of the regular session in January.

Meanwhile, I have my doubts about whether the DPJ can be the party that Mr. Nagashima wants it to be. At the moment, the DPJ seems to wholly lack an “in spite of it all” attitude, reacting more to the vicissitudes of public opinion than acting from deeply held passions. This may be a result of the nature of life in opposition, but I’m not clear how the DPJ can transition from shiftless opposition party to ruling party insensitive to the ups and downs of public opinion. (It’s much easier to see it becoming a shiftless ruling party.) Mr. Nagashima suggests that the DPJ must ensure that all of its candidates have “guts.” Perhaps a bit easier said than done.

UPDATE — Everyone is apparently reading Weber this weekend. Arthur Goldhammer, author of the indispensable blog French Politics, recommends Weber’s essay to M. Sarkozy in this post.

2 thoughts on “The problem with Fukuda

  1. Bryce

    It\’s a shame leaders\’ terms are so short and skullduggery so intense in the LDP. PMs tend to dirty their hands with the mistakes of their predecessors, and as a result give their opponents plenty to bash them around the ears with when the time comes to eneunciate new strategy. Before you know it they are out.Still, I\’m sure Fukuda has a bunch of New Year\’s resolutions.


  2. Anonymous

    You may be right that Fukuda\’s \”passionless\” cautious approach to leadership poses risks for the Japanese economy after the passionate but misdirected and misguided leadership of Abe Shinzo. My impression is that the LDP needs a steady reliable hand at the wheel while it reasseses where it is going. The economy is subjected to the buffeting of the subprime credit bubble in the US and though it may escape the worst effects of this buffeting, the government needs to watch what is happening to the global economy before it makes any major decisions next year. International politics remains uncertain and tricky and as you have noted before Japan is not a major player but needs to maintain a certain independence and the initiative to act in its own interests despite lacking the power to determine events on its own.


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