DPP referendum event: starring Premier Su

On Wednesday night, I went to a park in Taipei City to hear a DPP rally against the four referendums. The crowd wasn’t big, probably a bit less than 1,000 people, but it was a weekday night and a cold front had just hit. It didn’t rain, and it wasn’t as cold as people feared.[1] As you can see, it is a fairly old crowd. Normally, that would be a warning sign, but, as I argued in a previous post, the key this time might be mobilizing the traditional DPP base. At the very least, this is a necessary step. The crowd was shockingly enthusiastic. You rarely see DPP crowds in Taipei this engaged for a candidate; I certainly didn’t expect them to be so hyped up for an abstract referendum.

They didn’t plan for a big crowd. This is probably about what they expected.

I got to the event late, so I missed the beginning. It was organized by city councilor Liang Wen-jieh 梁文傑 and his wife, legislator Lin Chu-yin 林楚茵.[2] I assume one or both of them spoke before I arrived. When I got there, Taoyuan mayor Chen Wen-tsan was speaking. He finished before I found a place to sit down and really settle in, so I don’t have any strong impressions of his speech. It was effective, though I can’t tell you more than that.

Minister of Economics Wang Mei-hua 王美花 followed Cheng. She has played a major role in the campaign against the four items. In the CEC-sponsored TV debates, she has represented the no side twice, once in a pork debate and once in a LNG/reef debate. I had never seen her speak publicly before this campaign, and, at least for me, she has emerged as one of the most persuasive voices for DPP policies. In this event, Wang went heavily into the details of pork and energy while somehow still being easily accessible. It was an impressive talk in which she answered questions at various levels of sophistication. If you just wanted a general impression, she gave you that. If you wanted to know about how the revised LNG project was designed to protect the reefs, she gave you that, too. If you wanted to know about energy supply, carbon emissions, and projected demand, she had broad and detailed explanations there, too. She speaks with the expertise and authority of a career bureaucrat, never raising her voice or getting too emotional. However, unlike most bureaucrats, she was able to bring it all down to a level that most people could understand. Moreover, she kept the audience engaged. The college professor in me was in awe of her ability to communicate complex ideas while still holding the attention of an audience that could have easily tuned her out.

In the buffet of campaign speeches, she was a really good salad. I mean that as a complement – I love salad. But when you eat a really good salad, you are always still aware that you are eating something nutritious. No matter how great it tastes, there is no guilty pleasure in vegetables because in addition to being delicious they are also packed with nearly everything else you need for good health. Wang didn’t thrill the audience with the empty calories of a chocolate cake or a deep-fried treat, but she satisfied them with wholesome content.

Don’t forget how grateful we are for the 4 million Moderna vaccines.

American pork is safe. AIT Director Oudkirk feeds it to her children.

Defeating this referendum is crucial to our application to join CPTPP.

The main speaker of the night was Premier Su Tseng-chang 蘇貞昌. In my informal list of Taiwan’s great outdoor speakers, Su is probably at the top. It’s a joy for a rally junkie like myself to observe a master of the craft at work, and, on Wednesday, Su had a good night even by his lofty standards. The audience was eating out of his hand right from the start. He spoke for about 45 minutes without any lulls in energy or passion. There were several times when the audience broke into impromptu applause, and, even if these were started by staffers planted in the crowd,[3] the rest of the people picked up those cues immediately and joined in enthusiastically.

Su spent more than half of his time talking about his record as premier. He talked about keeping swine flu out of Taiwan, the government’s quick and effective response to Covid, economic growth, various social welfare policies, fruit exports, wage increases, and other wonderful policy successes. One thing that impressed me was how he presented old-age stipends and long-term health care to this audience, most of whom were seniors. First he talked about welfare for younger people, such as day care and stipends for new parents. Only after that did he turn to things for seniors. It felt to me that he was allowing the crowd to feel generous rather than selfish. First, let’s talk about all the important things we are doing to take care of other people in society; your grandchildren are our priority. Then, there is something for you, too; you are also important. Deft!

This was all presented with the flair of a confident showman. After his introductory remarks and some praise for the two local politicians, Su announced he was about to start the main talk by dramatically pulling out a pool cue.[4] You rarely get a crowd response from a gesture, but this got a few murmurs, then a bit of laughter, and finally some applause. He went through a series of slides using his pool cue to emphasize his points. Last week, I questioned Chao Yi-hsiang’s 趙怡翔 use of powerpoint to give his speech. On Wednesday, I realized that both Wang and Su were basically using powerpoint slides in their speeches, even if they didn’t feel like powerpoint presentations because they were so flawlessly integrated. Thinking back, Su started doing this in the 2020 campaign. Then, it was only a few slides. Now, he has built his entire speech around the pictures on the screen behind him. So I should apologize to Chao Yi-hsiang. It turns out he is an early (though a bit clumsy) adopter of what might turn out to be the next great campaign innovation.

Remember how swine flu devastated our pork farmers? No? That’s because we didn’t let it in!

Check out our fantastic economic growth!

And we have some great welfare for all you old geezers, too!

After Su finished the extensive segment about how wonderful the DPP’s record of governance has been, he turned briefly to the KMT. The KMT, he said, has been obstructing the government at every turn. As an example, he pointed to the current visits by representatives from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which he considered major diplomatic breakthroughs. The KMT had dismissed them as three “small” countries. Each of them, Su pointed out, has twice as much land as Taiwan, and they are all fairly wealthy countries inside the EU. They’re important! Meanwhile, the KMT legislative caucus was refusing to review the Foreign Ministry’s annual budget to protest Foreign Minister Joseph Wu’s decision to meet the Baltic delegations rather than show up in person at the legislator. Is this party on the same side as the rest of us, Su asked incredulously.

Su also lambasted the KMT for brawling in the legislature, which is a richly ironic attack coming from the DPP. I can’t remember such a specific accusation in a campaign speech. The KMT and New Party used to routinely call the DPP a chaotic party 亂黨, but they rarely explained in any detail. It was a reference to legislative brawls during the transition to democracy, but it was also probably a reference to years of street protests. Su, however, was talking about two specific legislative brawls (the infrastructure brawls and the pork brawl) to make a more general point about the KMT’s character. The KMT, he explained, was always trying to twist things up in order to obstruct progress.

Look at these guys. Aren’t they disgusting.
(Note: He didn’t neglect the opportunity to single out Yen Kuan-heng, the KMT’s candidate in the upcoming Taichung City by-election.)

Look on the floor. Those are pork intestines. That’s what the KMT really thinks of Taiwanese pork!

And the referendums were another example. The KMT was twisting people’s honest and good impulses – to protect the environment and food safety – in order to obstruct policies necessary for Taiwan’s future.

I won’t go into the details of Su’s arguments about the pork and energy referendums. He made most of the same, familiar points. He didn’t have the depth of Minister Wang, but he had a lot more charisma and flair. She made the rational arguments, and he filled in some of the emotion. The two complemented each other very well.

Can you believe this guy! When he was New Taipei mayor he said we should build the project as scheduled in Taoyuan. Now that he is party chair, he suddenly wants to move it to New Taipei.

The last thing he talked about was R19, the proposal to hold referendums on the same day as general elections. He barely spent any time at all on this. He simply reminded people of the horrible lines in 2018 and concluded that he was definitely against R19. R19 is a difficult referendum for the DPP base since it has been taught for years that referendums are unquestionably good. Strategically, it seems the DPP is trying to win R19 by mobilizing its base to vote against the other three items. Once they are in the voting booth voting no on everything else, hopefully they will trust the DPP to vote no on this one too.

Su’s more general strategy is to make this a referendum on both the government and the KMT. He wants you to remember how good the DPP has been in office, and he also wants you to remember how much you don’t like the KMT. Remember, polls show that the DPP is pretty popular right now, Tsai’s approval ratings are pretty good, and the KMT’s numbers are miserable. Su doesn’t want you to think about the ractopamine pork referendum, he wants you to think about the KMT pork referendum intended to block the DPP government.

A final thought on Premier Su. I was stunned by his energy and vitality. A few years ago, he seemed tired and ready to leave the stage. He wanted his protégé Wu Ping-jui 吳秉叡 to run for New Taipei mayor in 2018, but Wu fizzled and the party dragged Su back into the fray. After the 2018 election debacle and Premier Lai’s resignation, the DPP turned once again to their old warhorse. It reeked of desperation. However, Su’s second stint as premier has gone better than anyone could have predicted. He is known as a workaholic, and the pressure of the job seems to have made him younger and sharper. You can make a good argument that he saved Tsai’s presidency, and, as an encore, he led Taiwan’s world-acclaimed Covid response. On stage Wednesday, he was fully engaged and committed. This didn’t seem like a person counting down the days until he can retire to a life of leisure and relaxation. For the first time on Wednesday, the thought crossed my mind that maybe this isn’t the last triumphant act of his illustrious career. Most people expect the DPP’s 2024 presidential nomination to be a contest between VP William Lai and Taoyuang mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, with an outside chance that Transportation Minister Lin Chia-lung will get involved. Lai ran against Tsai in 2020, and Cheng is positioning himself as the heir to Tsai’s more progressive platform. Currently, Lai is pretty far ahead in the polls, and Cheng doesn’t seem to be catching up. If Cheng isn’t up to the challenge, perhaps the progressive side of the DPP will turn to Su to stop the much more conservative Lai. He’s 74 years old now, but in the age of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, maybe that’s not too old to launch a new enterprise. It’s highly unlikely, but after watching him oozing charisma, vitality, optimism, and pluck on Wednesday, it suddenly doesn’t seem impossible.

[1] The weather reports had suggested it might be 12-13, but my car thermometer said it was around 16-18.

[2] Yes, it seems awkward and perhaps a bit sexist to name the man first and the woman second when she holds a higher position, especially since I devoted quite a bit of the past decade to documenting the rise of women in Taiwanese politics. But in this case, Liang is almost certainly the primary organizer. He has been in electoral politics for a decade and is one of the national leaders of the New Tide faction. This is his district, and he has been organizing it for a long time. Lin was a TV reporter who, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly got placed on the DPP party list in 2020. It probably shocked everyone — including them — that she got to the legislature before he did.

[3] I don’t know if they were. I’m trying to be as skeptical as possible.

[4] It reminded me of Phantom Regiment. I’ll be shocked if any of my readers understand this reference, but maybe there’s a drum corps fan out there who will absolutely get it.

One Response to “DPP referendum event: starring Premier Su”

  1. Shelley Rigger Says:

    Another fantastic post, FG! And, yes, Su is a political genius of epic proportions. I totally agree: he did a lot to save Tsai’s presidency — whether single-handedly or not I’ll leave to others, but things turned around as soon as he became premier. I will never forget his videos in support of same-sex marriage. Pitch perfect.

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