Looking back, Aso’s downfall may be presented as inevitable, the result of the economic crisis and the missteps of his predecessors over which Aso had little control.
But to render that judgment would be letting the prime minister off too easily. While Aso has faced tough conditions, he has done remarkably little to help himself.
Waiting until Nakagawa Shoichi’s blowup in Rome to appoint Yosano Kaoru as finance minister may prove to be one of his greatest errors.
In a party full of spoiled second-, third-, and fourth-generation politicians, weary old guardsmen desperate to keep the old system together, and conservative ideologues who have little to say about the problems facing the public, Yosano is uniquely earnest in his desire to get things right. (I cannot top MTC’s praise of Yosano in this post from when he was appointed Abe Shinzo’s second chief cabinet secretary.) As I noted last week, Yosano stressed the importance of decency in his book, and it shows how he conducts himself in public life.
In an appearance on NHK Sunday, Yosano, discussing a new round of economic stimulus, said that he wants to include input from all of society — including the opposition parties — in the new package. This desire for harmony is, as I’ve mentioned, the essence of Yosano’s political philosophy, and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says he wants to consult with others outside the governing coalition in responding to a national crisis.
Compare this with what Aso tried to do with the second stimulus package, a package that was at least in part rooted in the LDP’s political needs. The unpopular payment portion of the stimulus was, as has been widely reported, the product of Komeito pressure, and the prime minister reasoned that Komeito support was more important for the LDP than public support.
We know how that turned out.
But it’s more than just bowing to Komeito. Aso has made it easy for the DPJ to take a more confrontational stance with the government. Treat the DPJ like an irrelevant, noisy opposition party and it will act like an irrelevant, noisy opposition party. The LDP continues to treat DPJ control of the upper house as an irritant, instead of revising the policymaking process to acknowledge that the DPJ has a veto over policy and incorporating the opposition in policy discussions at a much earlier point in the process.
The prime minister should have been doing everything he could to get DPJ input and participation in drafting the government’s response to the crisis, not just because it would smooth the passage of the government’s agenda but because it would signal the government’s recognition that a national crisis demands a national response.
What’s the worst that could have happened? If the DPJ and the other opposition parties reacted to the government’s olive branch like the Republican Party has responded to President Obama’s efforts to forge a bipartisan stimulus package, the DPJ would likely have suffered in public opinion polls. The government would still have to deliver effective policies — easier said than done — but at least it would have made a good faith effort to build a working coalition to formulate an effective response to the economic crisis.
Instead, from the moment he took office, the prime minister has attacked the DPJ. Anyone remember his speech to open last year’s extraordinary session? Meanwhile on Sunday, the same day that his chief economic adviser was emphasizing the importance of working with the opposition in drafting new economic stimulus plans, Aso was in Aomori questioning whether the DPJ can be trusted to deliver change. (Not a question to be asking, Mr. Prime Minister, not when it is all too easy to substitute “LDP” for DPJ in that question. It would behoove you not to emphasize “change” as a campaign theme.)
The government has made it easy for DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro to be focused on campaigning in the countryside. Had the government made a sustained effort to include Ozawa and his lieutenants in policy consultations, he would have had a harder time escaping Tokyo, not without being punished for it.
As such, it is amazing looking back over the past five months how little Aso has learned from the mistakes of his predecessors and how easily he has allowed himself to be trapped by the same dynamic that destroyed their governments, with an assist from the global economy this time around.