My first year in graduate school, I worked as a research assistant for a professor studying presidential campaigns in the USA. Al Gore had just lost the 2000 election, and my boss was interested in whether other vice-presidents running for the top job had made better strategic decisions. Of course, it is not difficult to conclude that a candidate representing an unpopular incumbent party should try to differentiate himself from the president, but it this is a very difficult thing to do. They feel disloyal; they worry about a backlash within the party; and they fear a public image as an unprincipled flip-flopper. Nixon, Humphrey, Bush, and Gore all agonized over how early and how dramatically to break with the president. What made it harder for the all but Humphrey was that their president was not terribly unpopular. Lyndon Johnson, however, was extremely unpopular, and Humphrey’s campaign took off almost exactly when he publicly disagreed with Johnson on how to conduct the Vietnam War. If he had broken with LBJ earlier, he might have won the presidency in 1968.
Eric Chu isn’t the vice-president, but he is the KMT party chair. In a party-centric system like Taiwan’s, Chu is closely associated with President Ma. Unfortunately for Chu, Ma is extremely unpopular. You might think it would be a no-brainer to draw some clear lines of difference. I have certainly been watching carefully for any signs that Chu wants to position himself differently. This past week, Chu did two things that might have been meaningful. Alas, the closer you look, the less significant they seem.
First, Chu went on a talk show, the host asked him why President Ma had failed to win much public approval. Chu replied that Ma’s government had suffered three major policy failures. They had allowed the prices of fuel and electricity to go up, the capital gains tax on stocks should have been implemented as originally designed, and the promised twelve year compulsory education reform was completely bogged down. Later, when the media asked him if he was drawing a line between himself and Ma, Chu went out of his way to deny any such intentions.
I should say so. On each of those issues, it would have been easy to take a much more distinctive stance, and Chu pointedly declined to do so. On energy, Chu could have taken a stronger stance against nuclear power. Instead, he parroted the old party line that the underlying strategy was sound but that the implementation had been mishandled. Maybe the government should have continued requiring cheaper prices for a while longer, or maybe they should have thought more carefully about the impact on lower-income users. On capital gains, Chu could have lashed out more generally about making sure that society shares more of the gains from corporate profits and real estate investments. On education, Chu could have mentioned the recent curriculum reform. On all three, Chu framed the government’s failings in the most trivial way possible. Does he really think that these three things drive dissatisfaction with Ma? It’s not anything about Ma trying to purge Wang, the mismanaged Services Trade Agreement, tying Taiwan’s economy to a slowing Chinese economy, raising a middle finger to the population of Kaohsiung after the gas explosions last year, repeatedly insisting on a Chinese perspective in defiance of clear public opinion trends, or anything like that?
I am very eager to see if the KMT will be willing to look more critically at itself after the election. Clearly Chu is not ready to strike out on his own just yet, even in these relatively minor issue areas. And if these little points are hard, the big points are clearly off the table right now.
The second thing that Chu did last week seems more important. He managed to revise the party charter in order to allow Speaker Wang Jin-pyng another term on the party list. Since Ma Ying-jeou has spent most of the past three years plotting ways to terminate Wang’s political career, this was a significant move. Of course, Chu needs Wang right now, since Wang is the most popular politicians the KMT has. The party hardliners might not like him, but the general public does. Putting him atop the party list to attract votes is an easy choice.
Chu did something similar by endorsing Kaohsiung 3 candidate Chang Hsien-yao. Chang had previously been deputy head of the Mainland Affairs Council when the administration fired him and accused him of treason (which they quickly modified since they believe China is not a different country so treason doesn’t make sense). Chu rebuffed Ma by nominating Chang, and last week he said he stood behind Chang 100%.
These two moves look like Chu is repudiating Ma, but I would suggest that there is less here than meets the eye. What Chu is really saying is that he won’t inherit Ma’s personal grudges. I’m not sure that the KMT hardliners really hate Wang. Almost everyone who has been in the legislature has a good relationship with Wang, as do most party elders such as Lien Chan and Wu Po-hsiung. It is a slap in Ma’s face to restore these two to good graces in the KMT, but the rest of the party will mostly yawn. It isn’t like Chu just challenged anything of fundamental importance to the party.