DPP referendum event: Politics is Hard

Mass politics is hard. Sometimes it looks easy, but it isn’t. Political communication is a skill, and it is easy to overlook all the hours that have gone into refining that skill. Every now and then, however, I am jolted back to an appreciation of just how hard this game is.

On Thursday,[1] I went to a small event in a basement in downtown Taipei where three potential future DPP leaders were arguing against the four referendums. I wanted to get a closeup look at Hsieh Pei-fen 謝佩芬, Enoch Wu Yi-nung 吳怡農, and, especially, Vincent Chao Yi-hsiang 趙怡翔 in action. In 2020, both Hsieh and Wu both ran for the legislature in difficult districts, and both lost. I have seen Wu a few times. His challenge to Wayne Chiang Wan-an 蔣萬安 was, after all, one of the glamour races of the cycle. I had never seen Hsieh in person. The conventional wisdom was that her race was hopeless, and I tried to see candidates in the most competitive races. Arguably, Hsieh’s loss by 10% in that district was a better performance than Wu’s loss by 6% in a significantly easier district. Onstage Thursday night, Wu and Hsieh were fine. Wu is slowly learning to be a better speaker, though he still has room to improve. Hsieh was the best speaker of the night, which might be expected since she is currently a DPP spokesperson. However, I thought everyone went too fast to try to cram too much information into a limited time, and the result was that none of them really made any memorable points. I’m struggling right now to remember one killer point that either of them made. Admittedly, I have been thinking most intensely about the other main speaker, so their speeches didn’t really have a fair chance to sink in to my brain. So let’s talk about the event as if it were just a showcase for Chao.[2]

Vincent Chao has a pretty spectacular resume. He is only in his early 30s, but he has already worked in a variety of influential positions. He has worked in the DPP’s International Affairs Department, Office of the Secretariat of the National Security Council, Office of the Secretariat for the Presidential Office, and the head of Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s office. I ran into him in TECO the last time I was in DC. He is known and trusted by a wide array of powerful DPP figures, including, if media speculation is to be believed, President Tsai herself. For a person working in other people’s offices, he already has a fairly significant national profile. The obvious next step in building his career is to move out of other people’s staffs and get his feet wet in electoral politics. If you want to go anywhere in the DPP, party culture demands that contribute to the party by winning some elections. He has announced that he will run for the Taipei City council, and that is a great place to start. It is an entry level job in which aspiring politicians can learn the craft of electoral politics. Even if you don’t stay in electoral politics, the experience of fighting for votes is a prerequisite for power at the highest levels of the DPP.

The city council election is still a year away. Right now, we are in the final stages of a referendum campaign. It’s a good time to try to develop your skills at mass politics. This is, as we shall see, a very different skill set than that required to be a policy advisor.

The event was not designed to be a mass, outdoor rally. Rather, it was supposed to be a small, indoor event in which a real discussion could occur. It was supposed to go for 60 minutes (or maybe 90?), and after each of the four speakers gave a short (roughly ten minute) speech, they opened the floor to questions. The room might have held 200 people if it had been absolutely packed, but there were lots of empty chairs. I’m guessing there were about 80 people present, including staff. We are a month before the vote, so maybe it might be a good time to switch from retail to wholesale campaigning. At this point, winning 10 more votes is meaningless. For this event to be a success, it had to produce a multiplier effect. Each of those 80 had to be inspired to go out and get 10 other votes. But this was not a church revival filled with Hallelujahs; neither was it a “how to” seminar filled with easily memorable and repeatable talking points that the audience could take home with them.

Chao prepared a powerpoint. I can’t remember ever seeing a powerpoint presentation at a political event before. He started by talking about Brexit. His point was that the Brexit debate was filled with fake information, and British people now all think that they made the wrong choice because of this fake information. His powerpoint slide listed about six or seven misleading arguments in the campaign, but he talked mostly about the famous bus that promised the UK could stop sending an enormous amount of money each week to the EU and save it to support the national healthcare system.

At this point, I was already shaking my head. In a short speech, you have to get right to the point. Brexit is not on the ballot in Taiwan this year. Moreover, if you are going to use an event as an illustration, you need to be sure that (a) it is something that everyone has a deep, emotional reaction to and (b) that everyone has the same understanding of it. I don’t think Brexit meets either of those conditions here in Taiwan. In the Q&A, one of the questioners challenged Chao’s interpretation of Brexit, and we wasted five more minutes on this irrelevant topic. This did not persuade anyone to vote against the pork referendum.

After the Brexit introduction, we got to what should have been the heart of his talk. Chao listed four areas of misleading information in the pork referendum. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly what the four topics were. I’m pretty sure the first one was that American pork is not safe, and the second one was that there won’t be any backlash if this referendum passes. The other two? I wish he had hammered them home and forced me to remember them, but he didn’t.

The point about American backlash was the most glaring missed opportunity. This is the crucial point of the debate. If Taiwanese voters believe there will not be any serious cost to voting yes, they will vote yes. Even people who believe ractopamine is mostly safe will vote yes to help domestic pig farmers. No one in Taiwan is desperate to gain access to American pork. On this point, Chao is in a unique position to make a powerful point. He can say something like, “They tell you Americans won’t care. I’ve spent a lot of time in DC recently talking to influential American politicians and bureaucrats, and let me promise you that they absolutely DO care. They have made it clear to me that opening the pork market is absolutely crucial to any and all future trade deals. If we backtrack on this opening, they will absolutely retaliate.” If he has a concrete anecdote about someone who told him something one time, even better! The point is that Chao could have put a credible personal stamp on the debate, transforming it from a hypothetical potential consequence into a much surer, highly predictable reaction.

And then Chao could have brought out the sledgehammer. Maybe you don’t believe him. Maybe you think the people who say the USA won’t react at all seem more credible. Well, Chao had a unique window on what Americans are saying. On Wednesday, he had interviewed Bonnie Glaser on his podcast.[3] Admittedly, Glaser is not an official representative of the American government, but official representatives typically stay silent before other country’s votes. Glaser, a highly connected, well-informed scholar in an influential DC think tank is exactly the sort of person who can informally communicate American sentiments. In the interview, Glaser spends the first ten minutes talking about the tortured history of the trade talks, explaining how American negotiators have seen several previous Taiwanese moves to block beef and pork as betrayals. She makes it clear that bureaucrats at USTR already don’t trust Taiwanese promises because of this troubled history, and she solemnly concludes that another backtrack from a promise would have a devastating effect on trade talks for years to come. Chao simply had to tell us about this interview, and then soberly assure us that there is no doubt at all that passing the pork referendum would have disastrous consequences for Taiwan.

It would have been a powerful argument. And let’s not forget that Chao is running for office next year in a 13-seat district in which the DPP will probably nominate five or six candidates. This is an argument that only he can make, and that makes him stand out from the crowd. No one else has the high-level international contacts that he has. And he has those international contacts because he has pull at the highest levels of government here. This would have been a good argument in the current debate, and it would have been good politics for next year’s election.

Chao didn’t make those arguments. He never talked about how people in DC had personally convinced him that they really care about pork. He didn’t put his own credibility on the line by saying, “Believe me, I can assure you this is true.” And most inexplicably, he never once mentioned his interview with Bonnie Glaser. Instead, he made a few bland statements based on stale media reports that anyone else could have made. If you didn’t already believe the USA would react, nothing he said would have changed your mind. It was a bewildering missed opportunity.

Chao did not close his talk by issuing a passionate plea to vote against the pork referendum. Instead, he encouraged everyone to educate themselves on the referendums and make the best decision possible. If, after extensive consideration, they came to the conclusion that the pork referendum was a good idea, he would respect that. In the Q&A, he came back to this theme. The KMT, he said, wanted to present it as a black and white issue. But it is really a complicated problem with several layers of gray.

That might be the right approach in a university seminar where the main goal is for students to develop critical thinking skills rather than to reach any specific conclusion. It might also be appropriate for a policy advisor, admitting that it is a difficult choice and the boss must weight the positive and negative aspects of each option (and maybe a third path might be best). However, this doesn’t work at all in mass politics. By the time we get to the campaign, the politicians are supposed to know what they think. They are supposed to have considered all the pros and cons and come to a clear decision on what the best path is. And then the politicians are supposed to lead the public, telling them how to think about the choice and why one option is clearly the better one. When you say both sides have some good points and don’t add that they are clearly outweighed by the bad points, what you are really saying is that you don’t believe your own argument. You might be speaking for the “no” side, but, deep down, you suspect that “yes” might be the better option. If you don’t have confidence in your position, why should ordinary voters? Of course you must respect voters’ decisions. Accepting election results is a minimum requirement for every democrat. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t passionately advise them to vote in a certain way, especially if you believe that the other outcome will have serious negative consequences. In mass politics, politicians have to know what they stand for, and they have to passionately urge voters to join them.

Chao clearly hasn’t learned or accepted this lesson yet, but he will eventually. The alternative is to be drummed out the game, either by voters who have no reason to follow him or by fellow party members who cannot trust him. Politics is a team sport.

All in all, I don’t think this was a very successful event. No one had enough time to make a full argument, and they didn’t make very good use of the time they had. The questions from the audience were mostly off topic (eg: “How did these questions get on the ballot?”), so there wasn’t a very fruitful discussion. I don’t expect that they changed many votes or inspired many people to go out and work to persuade other people. And I don’t think the four speakers did very much to enhance their own personal reputations, though three of them could at least claim they were fighting the good fight for their party.

When you see a master at the top of their game, politics looks easy. But persuading large numbers of people is actually very difficult. Some voters need a message that is simple and forceful while others want a bit more complexity and evidence. Ultimately though, you need large numbers of people all come to the same conclusion and vote with you. Figuring out how to craft a message that can do all that is really hard. And then you have to deliver that message effectively, which is an entirely different challenge. All of the speakers at this event spoke too fast, trying to jam in as many words as possible in a limited amount of time. The result was that I didn’t remember very much of what they said. The best speakers slow down when they want to make an impact. In effect, they say that   this   is   the   point   I    want    you    to    remember.

The good news is that political communication is a skill that can be learned. Mrs. Garlic and I were recently watching a speech by President Tsai, and we were struck by what a polished and effective speaker she has become. When Tsai first ran for office in 2010, she was a pretty terrible at mass events. (I’ll never forget when she told a crowd to stop cheering because she needed to lecture them about her policy agenda. We can should slogans in a little while.)  She is a much better president now because she has learned to be a much better communicator. What I saw last night from Chao (and to a lesser extent, from Wu and Hsieh) is that he is at the beginning of a path. He clearly has political talent, but he will have to do some work to develop that potential.

[1] Personally, I can’t think of any better way to spend a Thanksgiving in Taiwan than at a mass politics event! I’m Frozen Garlic, after all!

[2] There were actually four speakers. The first was three-term Taipei City council member Juan Chao-hsiung 阮昭雄. He gave a pretty standard-issue performance. He might run for the legislature again, but he’s a bit older and I don’t think he has the same potential to rise much higher than that the way the other three do.

[3] Most of the news outlets had a short story on this interview in which they reported that Glaser thinks the referendum will have a significant impact on the American trade relationship if is passes. Mrs. Garlic saw one of these stories and alerted me to it. I looked for five minutes for the entire interview, but Chao did not post it on Youtube where it might be easily found. I finally found it on his Facebook page, where it was obscured underneath an advertisement for the Thursday night event. The full interview presents a much more powerful argument than the media stories convey; it is the kind of message that opponents of the pork referendum should take pains to amplify as loudly as possible. The media seems to have taken it more seriously than Chao and the DPP. Doesn’t anyone remember the power of Douglas Paal in 2012?

2 Responses to “DPP referendum event: Politics is Hard”

  1. Guy Beauregard Says:

    Great stuff. But for those of us who have somehow forgotten the power of Douglas Paal in 2012, it’d be great to be reminded. Cheers, Guy

  2. Bart Fünkle Says:

    bro a video on Facebook is not a podcast

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