Fixing Fukuda’s "good enough" cabinet

After Koizumi Junichiro called upon Prime Minister Fukuda to decide whether to shuffle his cabinet in the coming months, Mori Yoshiro — Mr. Fukuda’s so-called “guardian” and an advocate of a reshuffle — and Kato Koichi suggested that the prime minister should form a new cabinet before the start of the extraordinary Diet session in the autumn.

In a speech Friday, Mr. Mori suggested that the prime minister should announce the new cabinet in the second half of July or the first half of August, before the O-bon festival.

Mr. Kato, meanwhile, said that a reshuffle would enable the prime minister to promulgate a Fukuda agenda that would serve to distance the LDP from the Koizumi agenda. He suggested that new cabinet should exclude members of the CEFP under Prime Ministers Koizumi and Abe. [I would dispute the idea that Mr. Abe didn’t mark a break from the Koizumi line; it appeared to me that Mr. Abe was keen to distance himself from his predecessor.]

For his part, Mr. Fukuda remains noncommital, insisting that he remains a “blank sheet” on the question of a cabinet shuffle.

Yamamoto Ichita, LDP upper house member from Gunma prefecture and supporter of a shuffle, argues that if Mr. Fukuda taps powerful, popular officials and times the new cabinet’s appearance just right, Mr. Fukuda might reverse his decline and undercut the DPJ. He offers three reasons.

First, a new cabinet would distance Mr. Fukuda from the taint of the Abe cabinet. Mr. Yamamoto argues that Mr. Fukuda’s cabinet is still the second Abe cabinet (with a few changes). A change, he suggests, would enable the prime minister to wield more control over the government and make some progress in tackling policy problems.

Second, Mr. Yamamoto cites Mr. Koizumi to argue that a shuffle is one of two tools (the other being the power to dissolve the Diet and call an election) that the prime minister has to impose his will on party and parliament.

Third, Mr. Yamamoto suggests that if Mr. Fukuda lets the new Diet session begin without forming a new cabinet (after which a shuffle is unlikely), it will signal to the LDP that Mr. Fukuda is doomed and presumably trigger more intense campaigning to succeed him.

(He also argues, in an unnumbered point, that a shuffle will enable the prime minister to bring young LDP leaders to the fore and boost the party’s appeal.)

The aforementioned arguments sound logical enough, but they rest on the unfounded assumption that the Japanese public will be satisfied with a statement of good intentions, as opposed to concrete, resolute action to address their insecurities. Will a new cabinet be any more effective or dynamic than the current cabinet? Does Mr. Fukuda actually want to form a “Fukuda-colored” cabinet that will take a definitive policy position (pro-reform or anti-reform / pro-consumption tax hike or pro-growth / pro-Koizumi or anti-Koizumi, etc.), an approach that risks making enemies of the LDP members on the short end of a cabinet shuffle? Do the Japanese people actually see the current cabinet as a “Koizumi-Abe line” cabinet and reject it as a result? Or do they reject it because it has failed to deliver significant results?

A new cabinet may enjoy a small bump, but any bump is guaranteed to be short lived. The new cabinet will face the same obstacles faced by the current cabinet (hostile public, recalcitrant DPJ, divided LDP), with the possibility that opting for a policy-oriented cabinet over a “unity” cabinet will actually exacerbate the LDP’s divisions. Ironically, a more ideologically cohesive cabinet could be less effective than a heterogenous cabinet that is more capable of exploiting opportunities and co-opting potential rivals. Advocates of a reshuffled cabinet must at least consider the possibility that the new cabinet could be worse than the current, adequately mediocre Fukuda cabinet.

Does Mr. Fukuda actually think that the source of his troubles are his cabinet? Why fix something that isn’t broken?

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