Watching the shambles that the Hatoyama government has become, I went back into the archives and found the post I wrote on the occasion of Hatoyama Yukio's being selected as DPJ president in May 2009.
Called "The DPJ bets on Hatoyama," I stressed the risk associated with choosing Hatoyama to succeed Ozawa Ichiro, noting in particular Hatoyama's history of indecisive leadership, poor decision-making skills, and over-reliance on those around him for guidance.
The arc of his career also suggests that Hatoyama lacks a certain toughness — not a problem that Ozawa has — which will be indispensable if Hatoyama is to become prime minister and will have to be responsible for keeping the DPJ united, coaxing coalition partners, and overriding a recalcitrant bureaucracy. These tasks would be hard enough for Ozawa. Will Hatoyama be any more adroit?
The answer, it seems, is no.
I don't fault the Hatoyama government for taking on a tough issue like Futenma or postal privatization. After all, signaling changes of course on these policies is a good way to show how Westminster-style reforms can promote cabinet-led policy changes, making elections meaningful. But I fault the Hatoyama government — I fault the prime minister — for failing to exercise the least bit of control over his cabinet and his ruling party, making a total mess of these policies and others and dragging the government's approval ratings into dismal terrain. Taking on the US over Futenma demands finesse, subtlety, a deft hand in cabinet, and a clear media strategy. Not only has Hatoyama failed to keep his ministers on message on Futenma, he has struggled to develop a message in the first place.
Some might argue that the leadership vacuum in the DPJ-led government is a function less of the prime minister's failings than irreconcilable divisions within the DPJ or within the ruling coalition. While it is difficult to say for certain, I would argue that those divisions matter only insofar as Hatoyama has left a vacuum in the highest reaches of his government, which some ministers (i.e. Kamei Shizuka) have exploited from the earliest days of the Hatoyama government. Were Hatoyama capable of exercising his power, he would have an easier time controlling his ministers and pushing back against Ozawa.
Given the extent to which the government's problems rest on Hatoyama's shoulders, I have to ask the same question posed by Michael Cucek: Why do the Seven Magistrates not act? Cucek's logic — that they are hedging, ensuring easy conquest of the party in the wake of an Upper House election defeat, survival in case of victory — is compelling, but it also entails huge risks on their part. As the LDP learned, the public can be particularly fickle when it votes for the Upper House. I can imagine that a big enough defeat for the government could set in motion events that would go beyond a mere leadership change within the DPJ. As such, If Hatoyama cannot find a solution to the Futenma problem that satisfies all actors, I would think that the time would be ripe for a cabinet rebellion.
A new prime minister would still have an uphill battle to score a victory in July, but if he (or she) were to be in a position to lead — to set an agenda and force ministers and party to adhere to it, or at least to debate within clearly delineated bounds — the DPJ's fortunes would likely improve. The party's agenda, after all, isn't the problem. It's leadership.
For years polls have shown that the value the public wants in its leaders is "the ability to get things done." I am convinced it's why Koizumi Junichiro enjoyed the support he did. And at this point it's the only way the DPJ can save itself.