Aso aims for his base

It seems that in sweeping to office with the support of two thirds of the votes in the LDP presidential election, and with even more support among the party’s rank-and-file supporters, Aso Taro has decided that the key to winning the next general election is…satisfying his electoral base?

Has Mr. Aso been talking with Karl Rove?

All of the initial polls showed that independents disapprove of the Aso cabinet more than they approve of it. Nakagawa Hidenao — no fan of Mr. Aso — provides a comprehensive look at the polls and concludes that nonaligned voters are suspicious of Mr. Aso and reminds readers that it will be nonaligned voters in urban Japan who will decide the outcome of the next general election.

And yet Mr. Aso decided that his first priority as prime minister was to fly to New York to give a speech at the United Nations on foreign policy. What exactly did Mr. Aso hope to accomplish? Judging from the content of his speech, it seemed that Mr. Aso was signaling to his conservative supporters that he intends to pick up right where the Abe cabinet left off in September 2007, except the Aso cabinet will be, if anything, more relentless, more ambitious, and even less hesitant than the Abe government in pursuing a global leadership role for Japan.

As press coverage of Mr. Aso’s speech has uniformly noted, in a press conference after his speech Mr. Aso suggested that the constitutional interpretation on collective self-defense should be revised, a comment that will make his conservative supporters happy and make other Japanese citizens annoyed. He also signaled the return of the abductees to the top of Japan’s agenda vis-a-vis North Korea, a shift that North Korea has abetted in its backsliding in the six-party talks. And of course he promised that Japan would continue to contribute to the war on terror in the form of its MSDF refueling mission. How Mr. Aso intends to get that one through the Diet, before or after a possible general election, is wholly beyond me.

I understand the symbolism of Mr. Aso’s making a trip to New York virtually his first act upon taking office. I appreciate that he is at once signaling to the international community and the Japanese people that Japan under his watch will be dynamic again, especially considering that Japan’s prime ministers have been absent from the UN’s September summit for three years running. But I don’t think either of his intended audiences will be particularly impressed by his symbolic gesture. There was nothing particularly offensive in his UN speech, but nothing memorable either. And unless Mr. Aso figures out how to fix the problems at home, and fast, he will be just another in a procession of Japanese prime ministers full of lofty words and short on the ability to follow through.

Fixing Japan’s economy is, after all, Mr. Aso’s primary task, right? I would think that Japanese voters would have been far more impressed by an initial symbolic gesture related to the health or pensions systems or the worsening economy — perhaps dredging up the social security plans he floated back in the March issue of Chuo Koron and declaring that he intends to make social security accountability and transparency the central issue of the election. (Okay, I don’t know how that would work, but presumably anything related to the top three concerns of Japanese voters would have been politically wiser than jetting off to New York to give a soon-to-be-forgotten speech.)

I thought that Mr. Aso had learned the lesson of the Abe government. Recall again that article Mr. Aso wrote earlier this year, signaling what I called his reinvention in preparation for this very moment. In that article he pointedly criticized Mr. Abe, arguing:

I have previously placed my faith in the former Abe cabinet’s pioneering of constitutional revision, education reform, and a resolute foreign and defense establishment — as it were, part of the work of reimagining the state as demanded by the age — and believe these constitute an important pillar [of the conservative revival]. But I think that if we do not embrace our former LDP mainstream’s “politics of tolerance and patience,” if we do not stop growing inequality, and if we do not work cooperatively for economic policy that unifies Japanese society, we will not become a conservatism that opens the way to the future.

(The full text is available in a PDF from Mr. Aso’s website.)

Apparently Mr. Abe’s problem was not inaction but rather a failure to talk enough about these problems. Or Mr. Aso simply didn’t mean a word he wrote in this article and that he intended to govern like Mr. Abe all along, in which case it is unlikely that he will enjoy any more luck in governing than Mr. Abe did.

Your public waits, Mr. Aso, and it appears to be getting restless.

It’s a bad sign for the new prime minister when his lowest poll numbers come from the newspaper most friendly to his agenda (recall that opinion poll results often track the editorial lines of the sponsoring papers). Sankei found that Mr. Aso’s approval rating is a mere 44.6%. The respondents also seemed more favorably disposed to Mr. Ozawa, with only a ten-point gap separating him from Mr. Aso on the question of leadership ability. Sankei also found that respondents favor the DPJ over the LDP in proportional representation voting 39.3% to 36%, and when asked who they want to win the next election, they favored the DPJ to the LDP by a 48.5% to 40.7% margin. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the new prime minister.

Meanwhile his efforts to get down to business at home will be hampered by Nakayama Nariaki’s shitsugen, Koizumi Junichiro’s surprise retirement, and persistent discussion of general election timing.

I cannot help but wonder if Mr. Aso is Japan’s John McCain, known for being a conservative “maverick” — straight talk and all — who is capable of disagreeing with other conservatives from time to time but is also utterly clueless about economic matters and more interested in the glory of foreign policy leadership. As one article at JanJan wonders, does Mr. Aso have what it takes to deal with the worsening economy?

“I think that it clearly appeared in this LDP presidential election that Mr. Aso’s understanding of the economy is overly optimistic and his knowledge lacking.”

Thus far, Mr. Aso has done little to demonstrate otherwise.

If Mr. Aso doesn’t recall his own post-mortem of the Abe cabinet, he won’t even get the chance to continue the elements of the Abe agenda he finds so praiseworthy.

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