When Choosing National Leaders, First Consider Character
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
April 13, 2011
No doubt about it. The 2012 presidential election has begun. DPP presidential candidates Tsai Ing-wen and Su Tseng-chang have each aired numerous TV commercials. They have agreed to repeated public interviews. Meanwhile, President Ma Ying-jeou is sure to seek reelection. Beginning with the four day spring break, he repeatedly defended his major policy proposals. He repeatedly appeared at various venues. He reached out to grass-roots voters at the Tachia Matsu ceremony. He rapped with students. His media exposure rivaled that of the DPP presidential candidates.
The incumbency has advantages and disadvantages, The advantage is one need not buy air time, Whenever one appears in public, it is news. The media must report it. The disadvantage is the incumbent is subject to oversight. The opposition need only look on and criticize. It need not assume any responsibility. The incumbent on the other hand, must constantly defend himself. Faced with criticism, he must refute the charges leveled against him. He must clarify the issues. He must reach out to the public. He must present solutions.
For example, Su Tseng-chang's primary ads made purely emotional appeals. His ads spoke of his 30 years in politics, and his identification with the land. They even used his primary school photographs, They made little effort to discuss policy. To gain any understanding of his policy proposals, one would have to watch his interviews or the primary debates. Tsai Ing-wen's primary ads appealed first to reason, then to emotion. Recently she ran a nuclear-free homeland ad. The ad starred an adorable little child, but gave no hint of how a nuclear-free homeland might be achieved.
Advertising is propaganda. Propaganda must be easy to understand. It must reach straight into peoples' hearts. Basically, they can only convey, not express, ideas. Take the noisily debated Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project for example. The Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project was approved by Premier Su Tseng-chang and Vice Premier Tsai Ing-wen. The two can hardly disclaim responsiblity for its implementation. But neither addressed this fact in their TV ads. Su Tseng-chang chose to apologize for his policy decisions, and for promoting the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project. He even phoned EIA members, expressing concern over Tsai Ing-wen's refusal to apologize. Whether politicians are consistent is a matter of concern for many swing voters. It may determine whether they are willing to support a candidate. But for the vast majority of voters, who do not understand the importance, consistency makes little difference. Tsai Ing-wen is appealing to first time voters. In the end, how many people know or even care about the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project?
As the incumbent however, Ma Ying-jeou must ensure policy continuity. He must implement the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project, which was initiated by the DPP when it was in power. He must bear the brunt of favorable and unfavorable opinions. He must assume responsibility for positive and negative consequences. He must decide whether to continue construction, stop construction, transfer the project overseas, or settle on some other option. To solicit public opinion, he met with university students and raised the issue. In fact, the students who participated could offer no compelling reasons for their position. Basically, this approach is unlikely to help the Ma administration make these important decisions. That said, Ma Ying-jeou did something. It was better than doing nothing. After all, he is the nation's leader, and helped young people understand the importance of public policy.
In addition to the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project, Ma Ying-jeou discussed issues such as the luxury tax and the abolition of the death penalty. As one can imagine, he could do little more than touch upon these subjects, But Ma Ying-jeou did not give up. His facebook page says he hopes to visit other schools, and discuss other issues of interest to students. If this is Ma Ying-jeou's way of reaching out to first time voters, he comes across as considerably more sincere than Tsai Ing-wen.
As long as Ma remains approachable, he can make a good impression. Many have expressed disapproval with Ma Ying-jeou for repeatedly meeting with voters. He was heckled and denounced as "stupid" when he appeared at an anti-Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant banquet. When he and Wang Li-hong spoke to young people about having the courage to pursue their dreams, some mocked him, saying he allowed himself to be upstaged by a pop singer. But when he met with university students to discuss public policy, shouldn't he have been above reproach? No such luck. Who knew a Blue Camp legislator would become incensed at a student for failing to stand when the president entered. "I wanted to slap the student repeatedly across the face," the legislator said. Ma Ying-jeou, on the other hand, dismissed the matter. His face book pages says "Taiwan has entered the era of democracy and freedom, It is not really necessary to impose too many restrictions on college students. We should simply go with the flow." In short, the president and the legislator held very different views about student discipline.
A leader must have the courage to meet his critics face to face. Ma Ying-jeou has been widely praised for his squeaky clean image. But many have questioned his courage. When he ran for president in 2008, he published a book entitled "Quiet Determination," which argued that courage is expressed not in words, but in deeds. He has now served as president for three years. Many people have forgotten that Ma Ying-jeou expresses his courage in a different manner than other politicians. He is a sitting president. He cannot express his courage through empty gestures. He must express his courage through substantive action.
Do not concern yourself with hecklers. Do not worry about whether you will benefit from your exchanges with young people. A politician's reputation and achievements are the result of long term behavior. Ma, Su, and Tsai are competing against each other to become the nation's leader. What they say and do reveal their character. The presidential election has begun. Voters will soon choose qualified leaders, by reading the candidates' campaign literature, but more importantly, by observing their real world conduct.