Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ma's First Year: Fortunately He Still Has a Chance to Redeem Himself

Ma's First Year: Fortunately He Still Has a Chance to Redeem Himself
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
September 7, 2008

President Ma should be grateful. A crisis of governance has exploded during his first 100 days. He still has three years and 200 days to make corrections. If the tidal wave of criticism were to arrive near the end of his fourth year, no one would listen to his repeated apologies. He should appreciate his good fortune. He should hasten to put aside his self-righteousness and arrogance, and bone up on how to be a wise and effective president. He still has time. But he must not waste it currying favour and arranging photo ops.

In retrospect, President Ma's plight may be the direct result of his career path. It has simply been too smooth, too easy. Apart from being indicted over the Administrative Heads Discretionary Fund Case, he has never experienced a major setback in his entire political career. He never experienced the pain Chiang Ching-kuo suffered during his exile in the Soviet Union. He never experienced the nail-biting anxiety Lee Teng-hui must have gone through. He never experienced the repeated election setbacks as Chen Shui-bian. He was quite young when he gained favor with Chiang Ching-kuo. He had little administrative experience at the bureau or department level. Despite his lack of experience, he was made KMT Deputy Secretary-General. During the intense struggles between the mainstream and non-mainstream factions, he deftly kept his head down. He was subsequently drafted by popular acclaim to run for Taipei Mayor. Ma Ying-jeou has never developed any irreconcilable enmities within the Blue Camp. Nor can he find any opponents who are his match in the Green Camp. Only when this darling of the masses ascended to the highest office were his character defects and personal limitations exposed, one after another.

No one will deny that President Ma is a man of moderate character, who seldom speaks ill of others, and who is uncorrupt. That much we know. He is not a president likely to embezzle money and transfer it overseas. He is not a president likely to engage in empty boasting on pirate radio stations after he commits a crime. He does not have a First Lady who lusts after power and money. That said, a good president must be more than just a good person. We cannot simply turn the affairs of the nation over to a person merely because he is good.

Throughout history, far too many good people have risen to high office, only to fall on their faces, and be forced to step down in disgrace. They successfully resisted any temptation to incite social divisions. They successfully resisted any temptation to embezzle public funds. They worked hard. Nevertheless they left behind a sorry record. President Lyndon Johnson's cabinet members were elite graduates of Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Princeton. These elites provided him with the wrong advice from beginning to end. He overcame all sorts of obstacles to pass his Civil Rights Act. Yet the loudest protests came from the civil rights movement. Just before he stepped down he asked: "Why don't they like me?"

President Carter also had a clean image. He was determined to realize his ideals. He spent a great deal of time trying to please the public and the media. He attached great importance to his public speeches. Who knew the Iran hostage crisis would reveal his character weaknesses and expose his leadership defects? In the end, he would step down in disgrace as his poll numbers plummeted. No one will deny that he was a man of integrity. But he is among the lowest-ranked presidents in the history of the United States in terms of political achievement.

By contrast, during the 1980s and 1990s, President Reagan and President Clinton, who each served eight years, underwent rough periods early in their terms. During Reagan's first year in office, Congress vetoed a stack of his bills. His approval ratings reached a new low for post-war presidents. Shortly after Clinton took office, he attempted to push through his health care program. He suffered humiliating a defeat in Congress. He also found himself mired in the Donorgate and Whitewater scandals. Frankly these two presidents' situation after their first 100 days, was worse than President Ma's. But Reagan and Clinton created economic prosperity. Clinton was a particularly dramatic example. He was dogged by scandal during his seventh year in office. He was under a continual media barrage for eight straight months. The two houses of Congress were already sharpening their knives. No political commentator believed he would survive. But at the critical moment, the public surprised everyone. He somehow managed to ride out the storm. The reason is no secret. Clinton's economic record was brilliant. The people didn't want him to step down.

Whom among those in high office does not want to be loved by the people? Who does not want to be proud of his political achievements? Who does not want a place in history? But as the famed German sociologist Max Weber put it, politics is a calling. Ruling a nation is hardly as easy as Ma Ying-jeou imagines. A few more photo ops of you jogging and selling moon cakes are hardly going to convince people you are doing your duty as president. The people have limited patience for a president who constantly makes apologies. President Ma must not waste any more time with public relations, in an attempt to repair his image. He and his team must engage in a little more self-introspection. What President Ma needs is a little less show, and a little more go.

Fortunately this is his first year. He can still save the day. Eventually however, he will run out of chances. We can't believe that years from now President Ma will want people to remember him and reluctantly sigh, saying that "He was a good man, but a stupid president."










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