Monday, February 09, 2009

Getting Real in TaroAsoWorld

Is it not instructive to think of Taro Aso that we see as a practice Prime Minister, not the real thing?

Imagine Aso on the stage as a stand-in at a rehearsal for a head-of-government event, when everything that can go wrong, does. The teleprompter flickers in and out of operation, so the words come out garbled—Hey, I’m only reading this stuff. The sound system keeps breaking down, so he has to test it repeatedly—Let’s get creative and wing it with one after another of my own versions of “We bomb Russia in Five minutes”! And the lights are falling and half the stage is caving, so the script keeps changing by the minute—Post Office privatization was good, no, I was for it and now I’m against it… wait, slip of the tongue, I’m for it, silly! If he is the real Prime Minister, then perhaps we are an imaginary audience in his imaginary world, where he practices his lines and tries out his policies and programs and irons out the kinks—how else to explain the inability to read, and multiple flip-flops and twist-and-turns that seem to plague every other off-the-cuff policy pronouncement of his?

I have nothing against the Prime Minister the person. In fact, I would be happy to join him in his real world, where everything must be fine and dandy. I’ll close my eyes and click my ruby-red shoes (look, if Tom Daschle can wear those glasses…) if that’ll help. And if that doesn’t work, I can go to the voting booth come the Lower House election and help him get real. That is, if the LDP doesn’t get to him first.

The Prime Minister is not the total nincompoop that some of you might like to think. He appears to be well-read in the classics, all things considered. He shows flashes of native intelligence, as well as a knack for explaining things in the vernacular. It is when he wanders into the world of contemporary, standard discourse befitting a Prime Minister that he shows his limits.

A case in point: In the course of a talk that Aso recently gave on a visit to the provinces, he gave an easy-to-understand outline of the pushing-on-a-string, liquidity trap that the economic downturn has created. The problem: he seemed to be under the impression that academic economists were unaware of the concept. In the same talk, he claimed that he had more or less foreseen the seriousness of the consequences of the financial crisis before the rest of the crowd. Problem: He forgot to let us know. More pertinent to understanding the extent and limits of his qualifications as a head of government, businessmen had already been warning privately of the bloodbath to come as autumn rolled round.

What this reveals is an Aso that listens (I wouldn’t read that out loud if I were you—and don’t, DON’T visualize) and understands, but does not read, has failed to create a clear intellectual scaffolding to support and give structure to his thoughts. He seems to treat public discourse as if it were a series of off-the-record working dinners with his friends and associates at a three-star restaurant. And at 68, it is too much to expect even the most noble of leopards to metamorphose.


Anonymous said...

C'mon, the man can shoot clay pigeons better than any other Catholic Prime Minister in the history of Japan.

Seriously, though. I don't think he'll still be PM at March end.

Jan Moren said...

What you're saying is that he's a decent guy that would have been perfectly fine as a division head at a ministry or running a medium-size business. But as a prime minister he's normally be out of his depth, and in a time of crisis he's completely overwhelmed by the job.

Would that be a fair characterization?

Which makes the LDP leadership as responsible for his performance as Aso himself. You're supposed to vet high-level candidates after all, to avoid making disastrous appointments.

Jun Okumura said...

Peter: He'll make it past March, if only because he he'll have see the FY2009 budget through, which will take him past the midway point on March. If he resigns at that point, there just may be more than the minimum 12 days necessary under the LDP election rules to elect a new President (who would become the new Prime Minister) left before the end of March. However, there’s the little matter of the need to get some budget-related legislative bills passed, which requires 60 days max after they reach the Upper House. The DPJ has been highly tactical about these matters, and will likely let some popular bills pass before April 1, when FY2009 kicks in. At that point, PM Aso could claim that he’d done what he could; now it was time for someone else to take over, and it’s not impossible that the LDP would be able to meet the 12-day minimum requirement. However, I think the DPJ won’t want to run the risk of being so cooperative that it makes the Aso administration look anyway near competent. Also not insignificant is the fact that he really wanted the job, unlike the last couple. So my bet is that he’ll muddle through at least till April.

BTW, are you the Peter B that I know? If so, then you were one Ohio short of having your own gun-totin’ Roman Catholic President in 2004.

Janne: That’s one way to put it, but where’s the fun in that, eh? I’ve been looking for a way to state what I thought was becoming increasingly obvious about the man, and this is my best crack at it. The phrasing is awkward here and there, but this is a blog, so I’ll let my best effort of that moment stand. Actually, I think he’d make a fine farming equipment salesman or used car dealer. But not a bureaucrat. In the bureaucracy, words matter, sometimes more than the underlying facts.

And yes, the LDP leadership, what there is of it, is responsible too. They’ve thrown up three successive PMs who, for a variety of reasons, failed of their own accord, and no one else looks eager to step up. All this I’ve called “institutional fatigue”; three is the limit, it’s the universal magic number.

Anonymous said...

Why does Aso "have to see the FY2009 budget through?" I don't know a lot about how it works, but with the pace that the economy is tailspinning, I don't see how he'll even want to be PM in mid-March.

BTW: I'm not the Peter B that you know...but thanks for the laugh.

Jun Okumura said...

Peter: Remember, these are not ordinary, run-of-the-mill, mortal souls like you and I. Aso has wanted this job since forever; he’s not going to give it up without some sense of achievement if he can help it. In fact, he’s likely to try to hang on until the Diet passes yet another stimulus package—Kaoru Yosano as Economy Minister has intimated as much—in the hopes that it will revive his political fortunes. On the LDP side, a premature election will eat up at least a couple of weeks before the Diet agenda can be resumed, which means that the ruling coalition will have to kiss goodbye to any hopes of passing the budget and related legislative bills by the new fiscal year. That’s bad politics and (probably) bad policy.