Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The DPJ needs to hone its message

By any measure, the DPJ enjoys a considerable advantage over the LDP with less than two weeks until the campaign officially begins on 18 August. It is ahead in polls, Hatoyama Yukio, its leader, is uniformly preferred to Prime Minister Aso Taro, and there is a widespread feeling that the public is disgusted enough by LDP rule that it is already to throw the bums out (finally!) and put the DPJ in power in its place.

But despite all that, the DPJ has not sewn up the general election. While I think Nakagawa Hidenao's argument that the DPJ has already peaked in public opinion polls is a bit of wishful thinking on his part, there are an awful lot of undecided voters whose decisions over the next few weeks will determine which way the wind blows on 30 August.

But beyond the existence of undecided voters, the DPJ could lose the general election simply because it has been generally poor at political communications. This is not a new problem. (Remember this?) The DPJ has had so much help from the LDP over the past several years that it has had to do relatively little communicating of its own in order to put itself in a position to win this month. The party has done a decent enough job at devising a realistic manifesto that, whatever its shortcomings, does show that the DPJ is serious about governing. But the manifesto won't sell itself. And it won't counter the LDP's charge that the DPJ cannot be trusted with power because it won't defend Japan.

Watch this video of Aso speaking outside Sakuragicho station in Yokohama Tuesday:

From about the eight-minute mark, the prime minister goes into a long discourse on the importance of defending that which must be defended, on the importance of a forthright national security policy in the face of a nuclear North Korea and the contrast between the DPJ and LDP on this front. While I think Aso's claim that the general election should be a choice based on policy is a bit silly (elections are always about more than just policy), Aso is working hard to redefine this election campaign along terms more friendly to the DPJ. "Defend what should be protected." Repeated enough, this message could sink in among the public and make the public think twice about turning over power to an untested DPJ.

Contrast Aso's remarks in Yokohama with Hatoyama Yukio's remarks Tuesday next door in Kamakura.

While Hatoyama does address Aso's leadership deficiencies, at times it seems as if he's campaigning against the bureaucracy instead of the LDP. His stump speech is a bit all over the place. He begins getting to the kind of message the DPJ needs to deliver about eight minutes in when he asks why Japan has become a world leader in suicides among its young people. But then he starts talking about Aso's anime "palace," which, while a bit humorous, is a bit off message. Hatoyama and his party need to be angry. They need to meet the LDP's talk of the DPJ as an irresponsible party with anger at what Japan has become under LDP rule. They need to tap that sense of anger which is clearly abroad among the public. The message needs to be focused on the LDP. It shouldn't veer off into attacks on the bureaucracy or this or that instance of wasteful spending. It must answer the LDP's description of the DPJ as dangerous with a message that stresses the danger of returning the LDP to power again.

For the moment, I think the LDP is controlling the campaign narrative. Messages like Yosano Kaoru's claim that for the DPJ to deliver on its manifesto it will have to raise the consumption tax to 25% may, regardless of their truth, prove effective at hammering home the dangers of electing the DPJ. Repeated enough, that figure could prove devastating for the DPJ, which is why it must answer it now, before it sticks.

Meanwhile, the DPJ has clearly mishandled the flap over a US-Japan FTA. At the first sign of criticism, it folded: it has announced that it will revise the manifesto to clarify that agriculture will be excluded from negotiations, and it will soften the language to "conclude an FTA" to "promote negotiations for an FTA." In revising its position that DPJ will stress that the income support system will take priority over FTA negotiations. Of course, by doing so, the DPJ's position is now incoherent. As Sasayama Tatsuo suggests, if agriculture were excluded from negotiations, why would the US bother with FTA negotiations?

It's possible that the DPJ could have sold rural voters on the idea of an FTA packed with comprehensive support, if it had explained itself properly. But by sneaking the proposal into the manifesto with little fanfare, the DPJ gave its critics an opportunity to define the party's position. Now it has given a gift to LDP candidates across the country, especially in rural areas in Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu, where the DPJ needs to do better than it ever has done before: the LDP can wave the original manifesto before voters as evidence of the DPJ's desires to destroy Japanese agriculture. It may not be true, but as with Yosano's line about the consumption tax rate, repeat it enough times and enough people may eventually believe it. By vacillating and not defending its own positions, the party looks squishy and weak, and so ends up making mistakes for fear of making mistakes.

The time to answer the LDP's and its allies' criticism is immediately: if the DPJ believes in its manifesto, then it should defend it when attacked. As of now, the LDP, desperate to retain power, appears to have more fight in it than the DPJ. There is plenty of time for the polls to turn.


AC said...

The DPJ's performance perfectly illustrates why so many people doubt the party's ability to govern. The DPJ just doesn't seem ready to take the next step and go from being a receptacle of anti-LDP votes to being a strong party in its own right.

I think (and hope) the DPJ will still pull it out, but they really should be running away with it this time. If they can't win with all the advantages given to them by the LDP over the past several years and in the middle of the worst recession in memory, they never will.

The older commercial you linked to is hilarious, BTW. It almost seems as though the message was that things would clear up as soon as Ozawa was ripped away from the controls.

Tobias Harris said...

That old commercial seems to capture the party's response to the economic crisis perfectly.

"We'll try to steer the ship of state through the storm, and we'll probably fail. But hopefully everything will turn out all right in the end."

Anonymous said...

"While I think Aso's claim that the general election should be a choice based on policy is a bit silly "

What else do you reckon as important?