DPP presidential debate

The DPP held its first and only presidential debate today. Before I discuss that, let me step back and look at some of the broad contours of the race.

I have been trying to figure out why Lai is challenging Tsai. His stated rationale, that he can win in 2020 and she cannot, is not very compelling. Mrs. Garlic and I have had several long discussions about this topic, and, as usual, she has lots of sharp insight. Lai’s challenge is fundamentally factional and ideological, pitting the independence fundamentalists against Tsai’s more pragmatic wing of the DPP. We have come up with a list of grievances that the old men might have:

  • Respect / flattery. Tsai has not regularly invited the elders of the independence movement to provide her with their guidance and wisdom the way that President Chen did. The probably feel ignored, used, and marginalized.
  • Chen Shui-bian. Tsai has not pardoned him. Instead, she has left his case to the legal system.
  • Tsai did not fill the cabinet with DPP party loyalists, much less people from the independence wing. Instead, she put a large number of bureaucrats and technocrats (like her first premier, Lin Chuan 林全, who was a – gasp – mainlander and was once a New Party voter) into power. Even when Lai became premier, he was not given free reign to fill offices with his people.
  • This is related to posts. I think the fundamentalists thought that, after winning such a big victory in 2016, they should have the opportunity to fundamentally reshape a few policy areas. Two obvious ministries that they would have wanted are education and culture. One can imagine that they had envisioned a textbook overhaul, similar to but in the opposite direction of what Ma Ying-jeou attempted. They might have also been disgusted with Tsai’s relatively moderate pension reform, thinking that the government should have used its power to slash pensions to civil servants (who they are more likely to see as their longtime antagonists) to a bare minimum. We aren’t sure about the causal role of marriage equality in this. Presbyterian minister Kao Chun-ming 高俊明 was a key figure in both the rebellion against Tsai and the Presbyterian Church’s rebellion against the DPP’s push for marriage equality. We can’t decide which one was the root cause and which was the collateral damage.
  • Tsai doesn’t speak Taiwanese in casual conversation. This makes it hard for them to consider her one of them and for them to give her the benefit of the doubt when things are rough.
  • Tsai is a woman, and nearly all of the independence fundamentalists are men who are older than her. Koo Kuan-min 辜寬敏, a rich old man who has opposed her at least since they ran against each other for party chair in 2008, recently suggested in a newspaper ad that she should yield her position so that she could become revered as the “mother of the country” 國母. Moreover, she should yield in order to give a “young boy” 年輕的男孩子 a chance. Koo seems to think that the proper place for women is to be up on a pedestal in a place of uncontroversial reverence rather than down on earth exercising power and making enemies. It’s also completely nonsensical and cynical. You don’t become father or mother of anything by quitting in the face of difficulties, and Koo is currently leading the movement to stab her in the back, not the movement to put up statues of her.  I think most of Lai’s supporters are less chauvinistic than Koo, and for most of them her gender is, like language, more of a mild irritant than fundamental grievance.
  • The referendum. Tsai tried to discourage the referendum to use the name “Taiwan” in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As I have previously said, I think this might have been the final straw.

It should be obvious why Lai hasn’t based his campaign on airing the grievances in this list. None of them have broad popular support, and many are quite selfish. So instead, Lai has had to base his attempted regicide on the argument that he alone can save the party from impending electoral disaster.

Lai claims that he did not decide to run until he went out on the campaign trail in the March by-election and realized how unpopular President Tsai was. This is simply not credible. In a TVBS profile that aired just a couple days ago, Lai claimed that he was always deliberate and planned his actions carefully. For goodness sakes, he launched a book in March. That takes a little planning.

Lai seems to be taken aback that Tsai has resisted his challenge. It looks to me like he thought he would launch a quick strike, and the coup would be successful before anyone had time to react. The first step to this strategy was installing Cho Jung-tai 卓榮泰 as party chair. Since Tsai had just vacated the office and didn’t expect any primary challenge, she carelessly took a hands-off approach to the choice. Cho then pushed through a very quick timetable to decide the nomination. Historically, the DPP has held a major party conference to nominate its candidate. Cho convinced the other people on the Central Executive Committee that there was no need for such a long, expensive, and troublesome process since there wasn’t going to be any challenge to Tsai. Instead, they settle on a very quick process, with the formality of a polling primary scheduled a mere three weeks after registration. Then, when Lai unveiled his surprise attack, Cho insisted that the DPP would simply follow these (new and different) procedures. Cho has been critical to Lai’s claim that he has the procedural moral high ground. If they had actually held the polling primary in mid-April as scheduled, Lai would certainly have won, and his putsch would have been a fait accompli. With such a quick decision, Tsai would have simply rolled over and died, and deep divisions within the party wouldn’t have had time to develop. Unifying the party for the general election would have been relatively simple.

Of course, that extremely naïve scenario hasn’t happened. After dithering about for two weeks, Tsai’s allies finally managed to delay the primary. With a little time, Tsai was finally convinced that she had to stop ignoring politics and get out there to defend her presidency. Over the past two months, she has slowly put together a coherent argument for her presidency. In the first three years, her administration has done the politically difficult and unpopular work of laying a foundation, and now we are finally starting to see the first signs of the new house emerging from that foundation. She can talk about tax reform, wind power, pension reform, the new southbound policy, bringing Taiwanese businesses back to Taiwan, and, above all, a series of breakthroughs in national defense and relations with the USA and Japan. Her poll numbers have slowly improved. Her satisfaction ratings still aren’t great, but they are no longer disastrous. A TVBS poll showed her satisfaction in mid-May at 36%, up from 23% in January and 15% in late November. The same poll showed that as many people thought the country was on the right track as on the wrong track (41%-41%), an improvement from the 30%-36% results in January and the 32%-43% in May 2018. When the asked about individual policy areas, those had all improved as well, with the biggest improvements coming in cross-straits policy, national defense, long-term care, and policy communication. While her satisfaction ratings for economic policies are still bad (around 30% satisfied), she now has a net positive rating for national defense. Her poll numbers in the presidential horse race haven’t changed quite as much, but they have also inched upward. In the last two weeks, most of the polls have showed her 1-3% ahead of Lai in the three-way matchup with Ko and Han.

Tsai’s rise in the polls undermines Lai’s stated motivation for running. He is no longer obviously more popular, and it is no longer clear that he could save the party while she would inevitably lead it to defeat. A few days ago, a reporter asked Lai about his reaction to trailing in a poll. Lai replied that he would respond by working harder before catching himself and clarifying that all the polls he has seen show him clearly ahead. Lai cannot afford to be losing.

This logic made Tsai’s task in the debate quite a bit easier than Lai’s. She merely had to reiterate her recent string of good news, assure voters that her administration has turned a corner, and casually mention that the polls show that voters have felt the change and that she is now leading and is the best hope to win re-election. She could also point out that nominating Lai was tantamount to rejecting the DPP’s record over the last three years, and it would be impossible for him to win the general election while simultaneously claiming that the DPP had been lousy in office. In contrast, Lai could only reassert that he could win and she could not. He couldn’t really even complain too much about being outmaneuvered on nomination procedures. He is claiming to be overwhelmingly more popular; a slight tweak in the rules shouldn’t be enough to defeat him.

Ok, so how did the debate go? The opening statements were Lai’s best portion and Tsai’s worst portion. Lai started by assuring the audience that his candidacy was not meant to be a refutation of the DPP’s three years in office. He spent the rest of his opening statement talking about his four big goals. First, he would maintain Taiwan’s sovereignty. Second, he would unify the people. He mentioned a few things he would do, including judicial reform. This seemed to imply that he is dissatisfied with Tsai’s judicial reform (as most people are). Third, he would stimulate the economy. Again, he listed a number of concrete steps, including implementing universal 12 year education, addressing high housing prices, and promoting the new economy (based on tech and green industries). Fourth, he would strengthen Taiwan. He put several disparate ideas under this vague umbrella. He would stress national defense, internationalizing the situation by stressing Taiwan’s place in the first island chain. He would also promote democracy within China and promote Taiwan’s liberal values worldwide. He would improve Taiwan’s international trade position by promoting investment and signing trade agreements, such as CPTPP and a FTA with the USA. He would also promote English as a second national language, and take steps to raise the birth rate.

Let me pause here to editorialize. This didn’t sound bad coming out of Lai’s mouth, but there isn’t much new in this list. Other than judicial reform, he didn’t suggest he would do anything different from what the Tsai administration is already doing. Apparently, he would simply do these things better because he is more awesome. Still, it was an acceptably charismatic statement, and he looked and sounded presidential in giving it.

Tsai’s opening statement followed the script I had expected, talking about her accomplishments in office. However, it felt like fifteen different people had written and revised the script. It was hard to follow her logical thought process, so we jumped from one idea to the next with no connections between ideas. About two minutes in, I wrote “word salad” in my notes. Here was the essence of President Tsai laid bare. Even as she was going down a list of achievements, she was doing a terrible job of conveying those achievements. Rather than stating them simply and punching each point, she talked around each one and never really hit anything home.

Some of the topics she mentioned in her opening statement included pension reform, energy policy (wind power and creating a nuclear-free country), transitional justice, tax reform, national defense (both to protect sovereignty and to create a strong domestic industry), efforts to diversify the economy so as not to put all eggs in one basket (read: China), promote foreign investment, promote social welfare, prepare a legal framework for a stronger national security, work toward entering CPTPP and a FTA with the USA, and ensuring that the rest of the world saw Taiwan as a reliably and trustworthy partner rather than as a troublemaker. I think she would have been better off trimming that list and taking the extra time to add a concrete example or a specific statistic to illustrate and sell those points better.

The rest of the debate went better for Tsai and worse for Lai, but the opening statements are always the most important part of a debate. Lots of viewers don’t watch until the end, and your first impressions are usually the ones that stay with them. This debate didn’t feature any American-style back and forth, so there were no zingers or personal attacks to grab fading attention. If a viewer decided to tune out, there wasn’t much to stop him or her from doing that.

The middle third of the debate featured questions from three people. I thought the most illuminating responses came from the second question. Lai Chung-chiang 賴中強 suggested that low wages were related to the relatively high number of foreign laborers and asked if either would reduce the number of foreign laborers. Neither took that bait, but they answered the question in very different ways. Tsai spent her four minutes talking about the policies that she had put in place to try to raise wages and helping young people financially. These included things like raising the minimum wage, raising public servants’ wages, creating higher paying jobs, lowering taxes, and increasing social welfare programs that young parents might use. Lai spent his time talking about why it was so difficult to raise wages, how lots of different market forces were involved. He concluded that the best way to raise wages was to stimulate the entire economy. In essence, Lai was giving a free-market answer while Tsai was giving a social democrat answer.

Tsai’s closing statement was much more coherent than her opening statement. She started by noting that that there would be important and unpredictable changes in the global environment over the next four years, and it would be critical to have a steady leader to respond to those developments. Her experience in negotiations and managing national defense would be important. She then pointed out that the rest of the world now sees Taiwan as a reliable and responsible partner and hammered home the importance of this by going through a list of recent breakthroughs, including renaming offices in Japan and the USA, increased cooperation with the USA military, cooperation with Europe and developments in southeast Asia, cooperation with the USA in protecting Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic relationships, and being clear and steadfast in Taiwan’s position toward sovereignty and defense so that China would not misunderstand Taiwan’s resolve. She ended by talking about party unity. She would not simply give up because of one setback. Instead, she has reflected and adjusted to the 2018 result while still holding true to the DPP’s core values. Now she is more and more confident toward 2020. However, if they reject their own record 自我否定, they will not win. The party should unify around her, and one plus one is greater than two. (Note: Who suggested that a math equation is stirring political rhetoric??)

Lai seemed to have run out of points, and his closing statement was largely a reiteration of his basic theme that he could win. He started by sadly reminding viewers that the DPP couldn’t just ignore 2018. If they lose in 2020, they will lose all the achievements that the Tsai government has worked so hard for. Lai then turned to a baseball analogy: if a team’s starting pitcher gets into trouble and they bring in a relief pitcher, no one accuses the relief pitcher of disloyalty. The middle part of Lai’s statement involved multiple ways of saying, “I will be a good president.” He grew up poor, so he will listen to people. He is a doctor, so he will be a leader and solve problems. He is not corrupt, so he will be a good president. Note: I am not simplifying those statements; he did not go beyond saying he would be a good leader, for example, to explain just how he would lead. He did not elaborate on what problems he would solve, how he would solve them, or why he would be able to solve problems that others could not. He just asserted that he would solve problems. It wasn’t very well presented or very convincing. In my notes, I wrote “stumbling.” Lai went on to say that the international environment is changing, and Taiwan needs a strong leader to respond. Taiwan’s great challenge for the next generation will be promoting democracy in China. Finally, Lai ended with a revealing plea that was simultaneously a refutation of any idealism: “victory is our highest value” 勝利是我們最高的價值.

I hope this recap has conveyed the shallowness of Lai’s candidacy thus far. He has yet to articulate any compelling vision for the country that is different from anything Tsai has done. He seems to think that he will just be better at doing those things because he is the God Lai 賴神, and he always holds the moral high ground. Of his very few concrete proposals, at least two are far-fetched. He has talked about constitutional reform (and mentioned it briefly today), suggesting that he would abolish the Control Yuan and Examination Yuan. Of course, he won’t have the power to do this by himself. No constitutional reforms will pass without a consensus of the major parties, and he has not said anything about how he would persuade the KMT to agree to this. It is an empty talking point that will be dead on arrival. He has also repeatedly talked about promoting democracy in China. China will change when China changes; outside forces are not going to force China to democratize. At any rate, Lai hasn’t explained just how he would go about interfering in Chinese politics. Does he have a massive network of Taiwan independence activists ready to be mobilized in Jiangsu? Again, this is an empty talking point. As president, Lai would probably be more aggressively nationalist than Tsai, perhaps doing symbolic things like pardoning Chen and substantive things like revising history textbooks. He would probably be more market-oriented and less worried about social welfare than Tsai. And other than that, who knows? He certainly hasn’t told us. He just expects us to trust that he will be awesome.

In his closing statement, Lai argued that, if he lost, he would still be doing a service to the DPP by forcing Tsai to reinvent herself as Tsai 2.0. He has a point. As of late March, Tsai seemed completely uninterested in public opinion or the upcoming election. It was an image she has projected for most of her presidency. It took her a few weeks to shake off her torpor and start to mobilize to respond to Lai’s challenge. (Their first reaction should have been to vote to rewrite the primary timeline; instead, it took them until late May to figure this out.) It hasn’t been the most inspiring response, but at least she has finally started to project an image of caring about public opinion. She has seemed to finally realize that it isn’t enough to hold meetings about defense policy all day; the president also has to explain to the public what she is doing and what kinds of results they will be getting. If she manages to survive the next week, she probably should thank Lai for kicking her in the butt and getting her moving. On the other hand, there is no avoiding the fact that his challenge has, in fact, been a refutation of her term in office so far. Voters are now keenly aware that a significant part of the DPP’s base thinks that Tsai has been a failure in office. Regardless of who wins the nomination, that is a problem that will not go away. How can you ask for four more years of DPP government if the party has judged itself a failure?

3 Responses to “DPP presidential debate”

  1. jin defang Says:

    Brilliant analysis—thank you!

  2. cassambito Says:

    Professor Garlic, thank you for writing a post that’s more interesting and fun than actually watching the debate.

    Perhaps Lai’s learned from other successful populists in TPE and KHH that voters don’t really want to listen to coherent policies, they prefer to be promised wonderland.

    Tsai’s really lucky she gets to practice with him first.

  3. Is Taiwan’s Party System Headed for a Crackup? – Taiwan Insight Says:

    […] in past election cycles. President Tsai managed to secure her re-nomination in part because of her influence over the party machinery, which delayed the primary and reset the rules to favour her. That outcome suggests that the DPP […]

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