The presidential debates and forums last weekend were hard to watch but easy to understand.
Unless it suffers an improbable catastrophe, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will win, so its team sought to consolidate its mandate—and to further bury its rival, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Well aware realignment is underway, the People First Party (PFP) and Minkuotang (MKT) candidates positioned themselves as centrist alternatives to the warring DPP and KMT. The KMT vice presidential candidate sought to stop the bleeding from the property scandal that has engulfed her candidacy and further endangered her party. The KMT presidential candidate made a Pickett’s Charge.
The Vice Presidential Debate
DPP vice presidential candidate Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) earned the highest marks from viewers while having the easiest time. Granted, debate ratings closely correlate with existing support for a candidate, and a seasoned politician like Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) or Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) would have given Chen more trouble, but he matched or even outperformed Tsai-Chen 2016’s numbers. He confidently and competently explained his and Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) positions while tying them to issues citizens care very dearly about, like the future of the nation’s youth (in his introduction) and food safety (in his conclusion). He put the KMT’s Jennifer Wang (王如玄) in a tight spot by implying Eric Chu’s (朱立倫) replacement of Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) was rule-breaking and sexist and asking what she as a women’s rights activist thought about it; Wang could only evade the question and talk about something else. According to a TVBS post-debate poll, 40% of debate viewers felt Chen had the best performance, compared to 18% for Wang and 9% for the MKT’s Hsu Hsin-ying (徐欣瑩). Even better, 56% preferred Chen’s policies, compared to 15% for Wang and 9% for Hsu.
Chen came into this campaign with relatively scant political experience, but he boasts a sterling personal reputation, amiable personality, and excellent memory. Because the questions from citizens seemed to be an open-book text (Chen and Wang appeared to be reading their responses) he only had to speak off the cuff in the question and answer session, when he was asked by Hsu about his area of expertise (epidemiology) and by Wang about a perceived failure of his Academia Sinica senior Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲), which came as no surprise because KMTers like Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) have attacked Lee ever since Chen entered the race. (They may have hard feelings about the crucial 2000 and 2004 endorsements Lee, a Nobel Prize winner, gave to Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).)
Legislator and Vice President candidate Hsu Hsin-ying’s (徐欣瑩) main goal seemed to be to introduce and promote the MKT, which she plugged as “bluer than the blues and greener than the greens” because of its love of both the Republic of China and Taiwan. She said more about her party than she did about her running mate, and she never even mentioned her partner the PFP. Unlike Chen and Wang, Hsu spoke without consulting her notes; unfortunately, her visible efforts to put her thoughts together at times made it sound like she was buffering.
But that is a minor issue. Hsu’s biggest problem was that while most of what she said was reasonable, it was too vague to be memorable or interesting. The MKT has the same weakness. Thanks to its heavy advertisement spending (it even ran numerous ads during the debate itself) and driven volunteers, the party has been very visible, at least where I live. Yet it has been very weak in party-list polling. Since it has only one member who’s actually in politics—Hsu, and very few people are familiar with her work in Hsinchu County—it’s still a mystery to most citizens, and many of those who do know of it see it as a front for a religious cult (for plausible reasons).
Jennifer Wang spoke intelligently and fluently on policy issues, so why did so few viewers give her a top score? It’s likely because her candidacy and credibility were already fatally damaged. Her military housing scandal, which I wrote about last month, exploded even more in the weeks after publication, as DPP legislators discovered Wang had profited several times more (and from many times more) property than she had previously admitted. Within a month, she became one of the 10 most-mentioned Taiwanese on Facebook for the entire year of 2015. The ill will she generated among the KMT’s most loyal supporters, military veterans and dependents, could even cost the party several legislative seats.
Hence, most of Wang’s words, including both her opening and closing speeches and her answers to a few unrelated questions (the scandal is so painful and well-known there was no need for her opponents to even ask about it), were defenses of her career and her personal integrity. At the end of her introduction speech she bowed in apology. During her tearful closing speech she even introspected for about a minute about being a woman with “masculine” personality traits. The most she could do to help her running mate was to save herself. She did her best, but it wasn’t enough by any means to fuel a KMT comeback. The media has said little about her performance, and the majority of citizens skipped this debate.
The Presidential Debate
Because the Friday forum was so tactically similar to the Sunday debate, for brevity’s sake I will only recap the debate here. According to TVBS, Tsai won the main event, with 31% thinking she had the best performance, compared to 20% for James Soong (宋楚瑜) and 18% for Eric Chu. Moreover, 34% preferred her policies, compared to 17% for Soong and 15% for Chu. So Tsai was rated below her polling average and running mate, and Soong punched above his weight.
This matches what happened in the debate. The key causes were Soong’s centrism and memorable closing statement, and Chu’s kamikaze strategy. Chu attacked Tsai even more often than Jennifer Wang spoke up for herself the day before. His opening and closing statements were cannon shots at Tsai. Every time he was asked a question, he spent the first third of his time attacking her response to the previous question, the second third answering the question he’d just been asked, and the final third attacking her position on the issue.
Tsai performed well. By reasonably and intelligently refuting all Chu’s charges she had time to address, she resisted the attempt to change citizens’ perceptions of her and prevented Chu from igniting post-debate media narratives about her. And Tsai would have taken shots at Chu, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), and the KMT, no matter the strategy Chu used, because they provide so many targets. Her best retort was fending off Chu-KMT deprecations of her 20th century property deals by saying her father worked hard for that land, then implying Chu uses his executive positions and land policies to make money for his family and enrich big business.
That said, spending so much time responding to Chu prevented Tsai from making a full and positive case for her agenda. It was frankly a relief when she returned to the positive and uplifting character of her campaign outreach in her prepared closing remarks. Though he failed to KO Tsai and doubtless lowered his own favorability, Chu may simply feel satisfied about making her seem colder than she did before.
Since negative campaigning hurts both the attacker and the attacked, the biggest beneficiary of the debate was undoubtedly James Soong, who only received difficult questions from the moderators and was free to rise above the fray and show voters a Middle Way between the warring major parties. Like in 2012, the two major-party candidates only asked him whether he agreed with their criticism of the other side. They do this because they don’t consider him a threat, but Soong spun it as proof of his centrism and cleanliness. Tsai should be a good sport and ask him a serious question or two next weekend.
Soong has adapted to public opinion the way the KMT should be doing, but isn’t. In 2012, he failed to differentiate himself from Ma, but with Ma and his policies now so unpopular and Chu lashing himself to the mast of that ship regardless, the ceaselessly center-seeking Soong has plenty of running room. His proposals and promises are vague, and he never tells you what the tradeoffs for his policies are. But he has a genius for saying instinctively appealing things that resonate with what your neighbors think, like “under my administration, we’re going to overtake South Korea” and “my parents’ generation saw war and chaos, and mine saw our rise to prosperity, but I’m worried so much about the next generation, and I’m in this race to look out for them.” He told voters that both major parties and their presidents have failed them for the past 16 years, which is a one-sided, self-serving, and perhaps even nihilistic message when you think about it, but one that matches what the average voter subconsciously believes.
Soong’s closing statement epitomized his talent. He emphasized unity, and the contribution everyone has made to Taiwan’s democracy. He talked about the example his departed parents set for him. He pulled out a picture of the late and saintly grandmother Chuang Chu-yu (莊朱玉), who for 50 years used her income and savings to make NT$10 lunches for Kaohsiung’s poor laborers; the whole nation mourned her death. Soong promised that if elected he will put her on a commemorative coin in order to remind Taiwanese of their goodness. He then started weeping as he noted Taiwanese have gone through poverty, and he doesn’t want the next generation to return to that. He noted two septuagenarian predecessors who reformed their countries, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) (the PRC and ROC seem to be the limits of Soong’s political memory). He proclaimed Taiwan must recover its pride and asked everyone to give him a chance to serve them, then gave three 90-degree bows.
Yes, this was a pure appeal to emotion, but with all the negative energy Taiwanese politics has had in recent years, and in that debate as well, people sincerely appreciated this emotive affirmation of their basic goodness from a senior statesman. Soong’s campaign still looks hopeless, but at least it’s positive.
Soong’s moment was heightened by its contrast with Chu’s ludicrous assertion that he had decided to replace Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) and run for president, violating his promise to New Taipei voters, the KMT charter, and public morality, because a grandma in Tamsui told him that if he didn’t run the Jade Emperor, a high-level deity, would never forgive him. The unbelievability of this cynical fable has made it a source of great merriment to Taiwanese netizens.
I personally will always remember Chu’s debate because he said so many familiar things that he sent me back in time. To confirm my feeling of deja vu I watched the first presidential debate of 2012, and then the second, and then the 2008 debate, and then some of the 2010 ECFA debate for good measure. With that I could confirm that this weekend Chu simply attempted to recreate Ma’s 2012 performances. He is essentially finishing off the Ma cycle by mimicking him.
Most of Chu’s criticisms of Tsai—that the DPP is obstructionist, that so many members of her team served in the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration, that she opposes the 18-percent civil servant interest rate though she benefited from it, that her cross-strait policy doctrine is unclear, that she equivocates on policies, that she wants to close off the country and send cross-strait relations back 20 years—were taken verbatim from Ma’s 2012 debate statements. The attack on her past property transactions replaced Ma’s references to Su Jia-chyuan’s (蘇嘉全) farmhouse and the Yu Chang case. The sneering smile Chu gave whenever Tsai rebutted him, meanwhile, called to mind the less exaggerated faces Ma Ying-jeou made at Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) in 2008.
Most importantly, Chu based his own candidacy on Ma’s cross-strait policies of bilateral economic liberalization and the 1992 Consensus, as has his campaign. His biggest innovation has actually been to dumb the Ma platform down, as demonstrated by his main-theme ad One Taiwan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjvMHNX2GJs). Chu’s arguments are bereft of the numeracy and attention to detail that made Ma compelling, perhaps by conscious choice, perhaps due to a difference in ability. Though Ma’s statistics and details sometimes belied correlation-causation errors, on the surface they gave the impression he really knew what he was talking about. He managed to make all the same criticisms of Tsai much more concisely than Chu, giving him time to present a positive and comprehensive policy platform of his own.
Frankly, Chu is much less capable than Ma, whether as a debater, a campaigner, or a party chairman. Just months ago many people called Chu “Ma 2.0”. Chu has proven they were mistaken. He isn’t an upgrade of Ma; he’s the shareware version of Ma: slower, less functional, and available only for a three-month trial period.
This would be a problem even if Chu could wind the clock back to 2012, but over the past few years a critical mass of citizens have decided Ma’s policies failed to deliver, and the economy is now stumbling into contraction. Fatally, Ma promised not just an improvement on the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) era’s GDP growth, but the memorable dream numbers of 6-3-3 (6% annual GDP growth, 3% unemployment, and US$30,000 average income), for the low, low price of signing ECFA. Rather than acknowledging painful tradeoffs, Ma promised everything would go well for everyone, using the KMT’s then-sterling economic reputation as collateral. Now it’s payback time.
The DPP’s opposition to Ma’s plan has never changed; citizens have just come to agree with it. In the 2008 presidential debate, Frank Hsieh predicted rushed deals, a weakening of Taiwan’s political position, surging housing prices, and the hollowing out of Taiwan’s domestic industries and market. In the 2010 ECFA debate, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) fleshed out this criticism in the ECFA debate by criticizing Ma’s undemocratic “black box” negotiating style, telling him the statistics he so often cited were divorced from everyday citizens’ real-life suffering, and accusing of him of not preparing Taiwanese industries for the pact’s impact.
Taiwanese citizens have a relatively high degree of consensus on most political issues. All the candidates promised to focus on upgrading Taiwan’s industries, raising workers’ salaries, making the government clean and transparent, reforming the education system, and so forth. Because there is broad agreement about what the government needs to do, the real question is who can get things done. Ma Ying-jeou hasn’t, they’ve decided, and Eric Chu is too much like him to be trusted. The new hot slogan, from Chen Chien-jen, is “6-3-3 became 1-4-2.”
The KMT’s 2016 campaign didn’t have to be this way. One year ago, Eric Chu was a well-liked mayor with a positive image, and pan-greens were worried he would have a chance if he ran for president. Though he would have been an underdog, he could have run a respectable race and garnered at least 40 percent of the vote, as Frank Hsieh did. Poll numbers in the teens would have been unthinkable.
Chu did enter the race, but in unprecedented, scorched-earth fashion, and he and his running mate have sunk further and further ever since. Hatred and fear of the DPP are the only driving forces the Chu-Wang campaign has left. The KMT’s loudest voices are now discredited defamers Alex Tsai (蔡正元) and Chiu Yi (邱毅). My deep blue mother- and father-in-law have stated they will not vote, and now don’t even mention politics. What has happened to Eric Chu? What has made him so dark? Perhaps there is something to the DPP’s analogy that the KMT’s assets are The One Ring and they corrupt whoever bears them.
(Feature photo of James Soong at a rally, from James Soong’s Facebook)
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