Friday, February 20, 2009

The Perils of the Shakedown Process

The three most recent administrations have been plagued by Cabinet appointments gone bad. In fact, the Abe administration arguably lost control of the political game and the 2007 Upper House election because of botched assignments and poor damage control. Now, the Aso administration just had another one, and it has been a doozey.

But before you accuse the LDP of institutional fatigue—which I have done quite recently, actually—you have to remember that the great Junichiro Koizumi, whose passing into the political afterlife continues to be mourned by his diehard supporters, invited his own appointment fiasco in the first year of his administration when he rewarded Makiko Tanaka, the charismatic but ill-disciplined daughter of the late former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, with the Foreign Affairs portfolio for her indispensable help in his LDP campaign. It is to be remembered that Koizumi failed to show any leadership skills in managing the ensuing crisis at MOFA and her ultimate resignation. In fact, the Tanaka incident was so damaging that (according to Wikipedia) the Koizumi Cabinet’s poll numbers fell 30%. Nor is this a purely Japanese phenomenon. Barack Obama has been President of the United States for exactly one month (three if you count, which in all fairness we should, his two months as President-elect) and he’s already lost three Cabinet nominees and one White House appointment (two if you double-count Tom Daschle) requiring Senate approval.

What we’re seeing, then, is the initial shakedown process. At some point, the Obama administration is going to reach full operational capability, just like the Koizumi Cabinet did. Prime Minister Abe cracked before he made a real attempt to regain his footing, but Prime Minister Fukuda had been making a slow but steady improvement in the polls before his nerves gave out at the thought of contesting a Lower House general election. So it is not inconceivable that Prime Minister Aso could, over time, make the necessary adjustments to engineer a comeback.

Of course there is an institutional constraint to that rosy scenario. Aso always had at most only a year to reach full stride, since he had to call a Lower House election before the current four-year term expires this September. That gave the newly-appointed Prime Minister very little time to recover from any shortcomings detected during the initial shakedown.

As a second constraint, there is the cumulative effect of the two previous failures. This meant that each successive administration has begun with progressively less political capital and consequently narrower margins of error. Prime Minister Aso, among other calculations, gambled that he could add to it and deferred the snap election that his predecessor had expected him to carry out. He has squandered most of the depleted store of chips that he inherited.

Which brings me to the third and most painful constraint for the Aso administration: In the eyes of the public, the Prime Minister has arguably been his own most disastrous Cabinet appointment. And that’s a mighty difficult flaw to remedy.

That’s it for now, folks.


mberenis said...
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Jun Okumura said...

As a rule, I do not delete comments no matter how stupid or offensive they may be. (If only because some of them are my own!) However, I draw the line at “comments” whose sole objective is to solicit business by, among others, drawing attention to their commercial web pages. I trust that all of my readers are intelligent enough to avoid such nonsense, but I do make an exception to my no-elimination rule regarding these spammers, and do so to the first comment here. I have copied and preserved the offending message, just in case someone comes asking.