Wow. This election is boring. Two months before election day, and it is really, really cold. And now, a lightning fast reaction to a story that is two weeks old.
In stating that he is open to negotiating a peace treaty with China, Ma Ying-jeou made a either a horrible campaign mistake or a responsible policy statement.
Politically, it is clear that Ma’s support took a hit in the polls almost immediately after he introduced this issue into the campaign. One never knows for sure exactly why these numbers go up and down, but it’s hard to avoid connecting the dots in this case. Experience tells us that nothing matters in Taiwanese elections as much as the China issue. Four years ago, Ma managed to diffuse suspicions that he was a unification advocate, or at least he managed to convince people that he wouldn’t actively pursue unification. The No Unification, No Independence, No War slogan was quite powerful. In the same way that Chen Shui-bian used the DPP’s Resolution on Taiwan’s Future to neutralize fears that he would pursue a radical course, Ma assuaged fears that he would be the opposite sort of radical. However, by suggesting that he would negotiate a political settlement with China, Ma has stepped away from his moderate stance. This is important, because the moderate position is where most of the electorate resides. The Election Study Center’s most recent data point shows that about 60% of the electorate wants either to maintain the status quo and decide about unification or independence in the future or simply maintain the status quo forever. One of the big advantages of incumbency is that the challenger is usually seen as the riskier choice, since voters have a hard time imagining what she would be like if she actually were the president. In a stroke, Ma made himself into the dangerous candidate.
One of the more curious aspects of this case was Ma wondering why everyone reacted so suspiciously. After all, Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian, and Tsai Ing-wen have all mentioned the possibility of a peace agreement at one point or another. Why hasn’t anyone accused them of acting dangerously or pursuing unification? Well, when different people say the same thing, it doesn’t always mean the same thing. The classic case is Nixon in China. Richard Nixon spent the 1950s and 1960s building a reputation as the United State’s premier anti-communist. Even within the Republican Party, no one was more anti-communist than Nixon. When Nixon suddenly announced that he was visiting China in 1972, no one doubted that he was being soft on communism or naïve about Mao. If Eugene McCarthy, who demanded that the USA pull out of Vietnam immediately, had won the 1968 presidential election and then announced that he was going to visit China in 1972, the reaction would have been very different. There would have been uproar about surrender to communism. Nixon could do it; McCarthy couldn’t have. To give an example from Taiwan, many people have noted that in the 2000 presidential election, the formal policy positions on China of all three candidates were basically the same. Did that mean that people understood Chen, Lien, and Soong to have the same stance? Of course not! They had each been associated with a particular stance for years, and their supporters had quite different ideas about what the proper relation with China was. Ignoring the policy statements, voters judged Chen to be on the independence side of the spectrum, Soong to be on the unification side, and Lien to be closer to the middle. Moreover, the voters were right to ignore the platforms. Subsequent events showed that Chen actually leaned to the independence side while Soong and Lien clearly located themselves on the unification side of the spectrum. When voters reacted differently to almost exactly the same statements by the three candidates, they were wise to do so. It is no wonder if people today think that when Ma is moving toward unification when he proposes a peace agreement. He has a long history of Chinese identity, pro-unification activities, and he is supported by people who share those values. Likewise, it is no wonder that people might react differently if Lee, Chen, or Tsai say exactly the same thing.
(I don’t really think Ma doesn’t understand this. Whining about how unfairly the other side treats you is part of the political game. It is all fodder for your side to chew on so you can tell yourself that the other side is completely unreasonable.)
Raising the idea of a peace agreement is almost certainly a vote loser. However, the policy-oriented democrat in me sees a certain value in it. Assume that Ma is planning to win the election and seek a peace agreement. He has a certain responsibility to tell voters that before the election. If Candidate Ma denied he would do any such thing and then President Ma turned around and did it, it would almost certainly be met with outrage and might cripple his presidency. It certainly would lack legitimacy. However, re-elected President Ma can tell voters that he told them about his plans, asked for their support, and got their votes, so seeking a peace agreement has a democratic legitimacy. Think about ECFA. No matter how much the DPP protested, Ma always had a trump card. In the 2008 campaign, he had run on the idea that he would pursue closer economic ties with China, and he won the election with 58%. He could simply reply that he was fulfilling his campaign promises.
As a democrat, I believe that elections should have consequences. By putting the possibility of a peace agreement out in the open, Ma has made it very clear what those consequences could be. Responsible.
On the other hand, as a democrat, I believe in winning elections. Ma’s actions have made that less likely for him. Stupid.
 Actually, there probably was a mistake in those popular judgments in 2000. Soong is probably more moderate than Lien. However, in 2000 Soong was commonly evaluated as pro-unification, probably because he is a mainlander, while Lien was judged as more moderate because of his position as Lee Teng-hui’s protégé. Lien subsequently made a complete break with Lee and took a much more pro-unification stance.
 There is a third way. In addition to (1) telling the voters and then doing it and (2) not telling the voters and then doing it, Ma could opt for (3) not telling the voters and not doing it. The third way would simply be continuing his present policy. Apparently Ma wants to change his present policy so much that he is willing to risk losing the presidency. Either that or he simply miscalculated the potential impact of announcing a major change in China policy. Or maybe I am overreacting.
Tags: Ma Ying-jeou