The Aso government's need for speed

Ozawa Ichiro, marking the third anniversary of his leadership of the DPJ, gave a long (and rambling) press conference at DPJ headquarters to mark the occasion.

In the midst of Ozawa's winding and evasive answers to questions pertaining to North Korea's rocket launch, political strategy, the coming general election, and economic policy, it is hard to find a coherent message, which betrays a certain lack of confidence that Ozawa and the DPJ are feeling at this juncture.

For the first time in months, the DPJ is on the defensive. The momentum has shifted perceptibly. The DPJ, rather than criticizing the government from one misstep or another, is forced to defend Ozawa's alleged misdeeds and respond to an Aso government that has appeared more vigorous of late.

Despite North Korea's pushing Nishimatsu out of the headlines for the moment and Ozawa's having secured the support of the bulk of the DPJ — the latest vote of confidence coming from Okada Katsuya, his most likely successor — for his staying on as leader, the impact of the Okubo indictment remains that the DPJ is now answering the questions instead of asking them. As the LDP knows all too well, politically it is much easier to criticize or threaten censure than to have to explain why apparent wrongdoing is not in fact wrongdoing. The DPJ has enjoyed a run of good luck, with the LDP's making plenty of mistakes for the DPJ to exploit, but now finds itself on the receiving end of the public's doubt.

Perhaps the more important reason for the swing of the pendulum away from the DPJ is the appearance of action on the part of the Aso government. Between North Korea and the financial crisis, the Aso government appears to be getting things done. I think Ozawa is right to question the government's handling of last weekend's launch, but this argument may have little political utility. The public is more concerned about North Korea than the mistakes the government may or may not have made while acting to keep Japan safe. Not surprisingly, the media wanted to know what an Ozawa government would do in the Aso government's situation. The media asked about whether the DPJ would be able to work together with the SDPJ on security policy in a coalition government, given that the party abstained from the Diet vote condemning North Korea's launch — and Ozawa prevaricated. The one clear answer he gave rejected calls within the LDP for the capability to launch preemptive strikes against North Korea. He also called for greater cooperation with China and Russia on North Korea, which is fine seeing as how the US has already beaten a well-worn path to Beijing to cooperate on North Korea, but hardly certain of yielding results. The DPJ will not win by meeting the appearance of action on the part of the LDP with mealy-mouthed obfuscation.

The same applies to the DPJ's response to the Aso government's latest stimulus plan, which will amount to roughly 15 trillion yen and push the total budget for 2009 over 100 trillion yen for the first time in history. The plan includes environmental technology projects, tax relief, infrastructure projects (lengthening the runway at Haneda, for example), allowances for children not yet in school, and greater protection for temporary workers. As Mainichi suggests, this stimulus package is redolent of baramaki, of throwing money about willy nilly.

I think it is fair to ask whether the government's latest plan will make a dent in shifting the public's propensity to consume, which remains the primary challenge for economic recovery. Claus Vistesen, in a long discussion of how the government can get people to consume more, once again comes back to demographics — he questions the argument that the government can fix the lack of domestic demand by incentivizing the transfer of wealth from the older to the younger generation and suggests that the answer is "to rely on the ability to keep a structural surplus towards the rest of the world" (which means constantly finding countries able to maintain deficits to complement Japan's surpluses, something the US may not be able to keep doing).

But without a plan of its own, the DPJ is also on the defensive on economic policy. The DPJ's "next cabinet" compiled an economic stimulus proposal this week, but for the most part it looks like the DPJ is simply trying to outbid the LDP rather than determine measures the DPJ can take to promote recovery and transformation. Promising 21 trillion yen over two years, the DPJ is offering 26,000 yen monthly child allowances (a proposal straight out of the party manifesto), making highways free, strengthening support for workers, and investing in green technology. The party is also calling for tax cuts for small- and medium-sized businesses and removing the temporary gasoline tax. Ozawa insisted that the party's manifesto remains pertinent despite economic conditions, that its focus on livelihood issues remains sound, but it is hard to escape the impression that the DPJ is punting on the most significant livelihood issue of all: the economic crisis. The party is still focused on comprehensive adminstrative reform as a means for freeing up funds. Adminstrative reform may save some money, but it certainly won't be a reliable source of funds in the short or medium run. Saving the Japanese economy will require more than cutting waste.

As a result, the party has, for the moment, ceded the initiative to the Aso government. Prime Minister Aso is even feeling confident enough to speculate openly about the timing of the general election, as he did Monday evening of this week: "Soon," he said. He may not have been serious — Sankei suggested his remark may have been intended to disorient the DPJ — but subsequent remarks suggest that the prime minister may be thinking hard about exploiting the DPJ's situation by calling a general election should the DPJ oppose the government's stimulus plans. The government is clearly desperate to appear to be doing something in response to the crisis. The content of policy appears to matter less than the recognition that the government is acting. Chief Cabinet Secretary Kawamura explicitly appealed to the speed with which the US passed a stimulus package earlier this year in a call for cooperation with the oppostion parties (ignoring the reality of the Republican Party's fierce opposition to the stimulus). The Aso government clearly wants to consolidate recent gains and build on its momentum. Whether it will succeed will depend in part on events, in part on the response of the DPJ.

The DPJ needs to tailor its message to acknowledge that it is no longer 2007. There is no ignoring the economic crisis. This week's next cabinet discussions were a start, but there is more work to do. The DPJ should have little trouble doing this: isn't fixing the economy a lifestyle issue? The DPJ cannot answer the Aso government's frenetic activity by waving its 2007 election manifesto.

The DPJ also needs to find the right message on North Korea. It ought to point to irresponsible comments on nuclear weapons by the prime minister, his former finance minister, and, most recently, Sakamoto Goji, a six-term LDP member and director general of the party organization. Asahi reported that Sakamoto stated his support for the possession of nuclear weapons and withdrawal from the UN at a meeting on Tuesday, but denied the validity of the report. If the DPJ can confirm that Sakamoto said this (confirm being the operative word), it ought to be able to appeal to public disapproval of this argument and paint the Aso government as excessively bellicose. The public certainly wants a hard line on North Korea, but there appear to be limits to just how hard a line the public will support. In general, the DPJ might be better off supporting the government on this issue, applauding the decision to go to the UN and work closely with the US and other countries. The DPJ gains little from criticizing a decision that has broad public support, and supporting the government on this issue could neutralize it in an election campaign and make the DPJ appear as something other than rejectionist.

The point is that the DPJ has not lost the next election yet. Momentum may have momentarily shifted in the LDP's favor, but the DPJ and Ozawa are still in a position to pressure the government. But it cannot merely play for time and hope that the Aso government will make mistakes.

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