Campaign trail: Tsai in Wugu

Last night I went to a rally for Tsai Ing-wen in Wugu Township.  This was a much smaller event than the ones I went to over the weekend, which was not surprising.  It was Monday night, after all.  The rally was outside a parking garage, and the irregular space made it much harder than usual to estimate the crowd.  The area on the ground was not rectangular.  The parking garage had three overhang levels, all with some people in them.  And there were even people standing on the other side of the street.  It wasn’t a really big space, but it was extremely full.  I would estimate around 1500 people, give or take 500.  The crowd was not mobilized, and it was quite enthusiastic.

I haven’t written a lot about Tsai in this blog, given the amount of time I’ve spent thinking about her campaign.  Everyone else is much easier to grasp, but I never seem to be able to reach a clear thought about Tsai.  She is terrible at public speaking and bores crowds to death, yet people seem to genuinely like her.  She spends an inordinate amount of time shaking hands for that personal touch, yet when she gets around to making a speech, it is full of policy details and short on emotion.  Everything about her campaign is a mess, her opponent is quite good, the partisan terrain is disadvantageous to her, and yet I wouldn’t be shocked if she won the race.  She just isn’t like any other candidate I’ve seen.  (Maybe that’s exactly the appeal.)

Having said that, last night highlighted the lousy-on-the-campaign-trail aspect.  When Tsai got to the stage, she was incoherent, uninteresting, spoke in platitudes, and couldn’t manage much Taiwanese.  She even apologized for her worse than normal speaking.  As we say, her brain was completely fried.  Apparently she had been in a motorcade all day, which is extremely tiring.  You have to stand and wave on a moving car, which is tiring enough, but in addition there are fireworks constantly going off right near you.  Six hours of that would be exhausting.  When she entered our event, she worked her way from the back, through the middle of the crowd, all the way to the front.  Candidates like to do this because the crowd loves it.  However, as she passed by me, I stood a few feet back and got up on a stool to watch her.  She was being pushed and pulled by the mob, and she was not enjoying it.  She was not at all happy, or shaking hands.  Instead, she was covering her head with her hands to try to protect herself a bit.  When she finally got to the stage, she held up a few sheets of paper that were all crushed and dirty and sheepishly told the audience, this is my speech.  After that, it just isn’t surprising that she gave a terrible speech.

This all reflects poor planning and inexperience.  When they were planning out the schedule two weeks ago, no one asked if Tsai was going to be too brain dead after six hours in a motorcade to give a speech.  Since Tsai has never been a candidate before, she probably couldn’t have answered that question herself.  It takes a tremendous amount of physical stamina to campaign, and very few people appreciate this until they have been through the process.  Even if they decided that both the motorcade and the rally were necessary, they should have thought about ways to reduce the physical toll on Tsai.  Being unmarried, she is at a disadvantage.  Married candidates can take a break for a half an hour and put their spouse in their place in the motorcade.  But there are other things she could have done.  They could have given her a chair for at least part of the route.  They could have used fewer fireworks or quieter fireworks or shot them off further away from her.  They could have shortened the route.  And when they got to the rally, she didn’t have to go through the middle of the crowd.  If they really wanted to do that, they needed to have a group of big, strong young men clearing a path and holding back the crowds so that she could reach through the human wall and shake hands but wouldn’t feel physically threatened.  These are all things that experienced campaigns and candidates know how to do.

The miracle of it all was that, as bad as she was on stage, her crowd stayed with her.  The beginning of her speech was awful as she stumbled around, improvising and then going into really dry (and vague) policy ideas.  This would have alienated most crowds.  However, whenever she suddenly asked them a question, they immediately roared back the answer.  Usually when you have lost a crowd, there is no answer the first time.  You have to ask it a second time before they realize they are expected to respond.  This crowd wanted badly to support Tsai, even if she wasn’t helping them at all.

In the midst of all this lousy political communication, both last night and over the past few weeks Tsai has somehow communicated a few very important messages.  One of them has to do with her vision for the DPP’s future.  Currently, as everyone knows, partisan competition revolves around the question of Taiwan’s relationship with China.  Tsai is trying to reorient politics around a new axis of competition (or at least add another axis to the current single dimension).  Tsai is trying to add a left-right cleavage.  She is talking about creating a welfare state.  She is not just pushing one policy, such as old-age pensions, but a whole range of policies from public housing to childhood welfare.  She is also attacking the KMT’s economic policy as focused entirely on the aggregate numbers, such as GDP.  These numbers don’t distinguish between additional wealth that goes to already rich people and wealth that goes to poorer people.  In short, I think she is trying to reorient the DPP as something more like a European social democratic party.  (Lots of candidates make these sorts of promises, but Tsai is the party chair and might be defining the DPP’s path for the next few years.)

Dafydd Fell has studied the attempts by different parties to add new issues to the dominant unification-independence cleavage.  He concludes that these attempts to reorient politics have always failed.  You might talk about environmental politics or anti-corruption for a while, but when push comes to shove, you always line up with your allies on the UI cleavage.  Eventually something will replace the UI cleavage, but I don’t think it will happen any time soon.  The question of Taiwan’s future is just too basic to ignore.  However, there might be room for a left-right cleavage to supplement the dominant UI cleavage, especially as the gap between rich and poor grows.

Coming back to the immediate campaign, we see the paradox of Tsai Ing-wen.  The DPP will probably do very well in this year’s election.  Even if they only win two of the mayoral seats, they will almost certainly get more votes this year than they have in the past.  Tsai is person most responsible for this surge in DPP support.  Her ability to convince people to put the Chen era behind them and focus on the performance of the Ma government and her vision for the future have been instrumental in the DPP’s recovery from the disasters of 2008.  Yet, it is conceivable that she herself will be the candidate who benefits the least from this surge.

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6 Responses to “Campaign trail: Tsai in Wugu”

  1. Michael Turton Says:

    What???? They have studiously avoided playing up the national identity issue the entire campaign. Now they bring it out in the last week? How does this fit into their campaign strategy?

    It’s a compilation not a real ad. Don’t worry. I was bummin’ too!

  2. M Says:

    Whenever the DPP tries to push welfare related issues, they are simply co-opted by the KMT. There is very little difference in Tsai and Chu’s position on social welfare, public housing etc. Over the campaign, Chu has been more effective at communicating a “vision”, even if many of his policies were stolen from the DPP.

    It is difficult to fight local elections on the independence-reunification cleavage because municipal leaders do not decide cross-strait policy. Therefore, when local elections come round, it is natural that the DPP try to stress other themes. When national elections come round, we will see a greater focus on independence/reunification and ethnic issues.

  3. Okami Says:

    This is the problem when you have a candidate in this position with no real experience outside of govt work. Instead of social welfare programs why not focus on streamlining and clearing up the current ways. Doesn’t anyone realize how effective that was for Chen Shuibian? It’s an easy to personalize issue.

    The problem with social welfare programs is that they eventually grow to unsustainable levels and encourage shitty behavior.

  4. frozengarlic Says:

    M, I think the reason I’m not dismissing all these ideas as just more campaign rhetoric is that many of these social welfare policies are taken from her 10 year grand plan for the DPP, and that plan is formulated for national politics, not local politics. (To be honest though, I haven’t read anything in that plan.) You are correct that the KMT has always coopted the DPP’s welfare plans. That doesn’t mean that they will always be able to in the future (or that they will always want to do so).

  5. Echo Says:

    Thanks again for this detailed report.

    I have full confidence on Tsai. She knows exactly which path Taiwan should be on, and she seems never make a move without thorough planning.

    The most frequent criticism she made about Ma’s admin style is that Ma’s gov often makes moves on sudden rushes without careful planning.

    The downside of that style results — in both Taipei when he was the mayor and now in the central gov when he is the president — in either bad managements that waste tax money, or a withdrawal of policies the next day they were announced.

  6. M Says:

    Frozen garlic,
    I am sure Tsai is very serious in her endeavour, but many in the party do not share her ambition. There are also very serious factional divisions in the party. If the DPP does not perform as well as expected on Saturday, Tsai will be seriously weakened, even if she does manage to hang on as DPP chair.
    I imagine that the next national election will be dominated the old cleavages.
    In any case, I wish her luck. I would like to see the DPP move towards a more social democratic position.

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