Last week, when poll results showed public support for the current Cabinet at an all-time low, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party tried to move past the bad news by focusing attention on what it believes is really important. Chief Cabinent Secretary Takeo Kawamura told reporters that the LDP shouldn’t “react emotionally” to the polls because it must “put all (its) strength into compiling the fiscal 2009 budget and a second supplementary budget for 2008.”
If Kawamura hoped to get the press focused on something else, he wasn’t going to have an easy time of it. After all, there wasn’t just one survey to contend with. Every media outlet carried one out, which meant each one had a stake in reporting how miserably the Cabinet is faring in the eyes of the electorate. For the first half of the week all the newspapers and TV networks analyzed the results to see just how the LDP had ended up in this sorry state. And everyone came to the exact same conclusion: It’s the prime minister.
Following the resignation of Yasuo Fukuda only three months ago, Taro Aso has gone from an asset to a serious liability faster than you can say “lame duck.” As long as he remains in the driver’s seat, the LDP can expect to go down in flames in the next general election. The government is trying to buy time by insisting that “policy not politics,” as Aso himself put it, is the order of the day, but the budget excuse doesn’t hold. As one letter writer to the Asahi Shimbun put it, a general election must be held by next September, which means projects approved in the next budgets could be canceled if the opposition comes out on top. It’s therefore pointless to say that they must be passed before a general election.
The media harps on the “legitimacy” of the Aso Cabinet, saying that since it wasn’t elected, people don’t feel it represents them. But the same could be said of the two previous Cabinets, both of which lasted almost a year before their poll numbers hit bottom. Why is Aso so unlikable?
The media initially mistook Aso’s gruff manner and outgoing personality for charisma. Much is made of his verbal gaffes, but what seems to make the citizenry uneasy is the way these gaffes exacerbate a public persona that already seems haughty and clueless. The “closer” Aso tries to get to the people, the more distant he appears. News reports are filled with anonymous comments from people “close to” Aso who constantly try to give his image a positive spin. Now there’s something derisively referred to as the “1.5-meter” theory. A “friend” of Aso told reporters that it’s unfortunate people think he’s so cut off from the average person, because anyone who gets within 1.5 meters of him immediately likes him for his “casual” attitude.
But what this friend calls “casual” everyone else perceives as sloppy. Supposedly, the public appreciates it when a politician is candid, and Aso is famous for speaking his mind on everything. The problem isn’t that his opinions reveal him as being above the concerns of the average person. Everyone already knows that. The problem is that he tries to bring himself down to the average person’s level and makes a fool of himself in the process.
Aso is from a rich family and owes his political career to his grandfather, former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, so when the media started reporting that he was going out every night, eating and drinking at expensive Tokyo hotels, most people couldn’t care less. What they resented was the way Aso tried to avoid any appearance of elitism by angrily taking reporters to task, saying that he didn’t think such establishments were that expensive and pointing out that he was spending his own money.
This lead to a corrective PR campaign showing the prime minister hanging out with college students in a cheap drinking establishment, chatting up taxi drivers and going to neighborhood supermarkets where camera crews filmed him paying for items out of his own pocket. Nobody was fooled by these “performances,” as they were called, and the opposition made the most of them. During a Diet exchange, one female lawmaker challenged the prime minister to quote the price of a package of Cup Noodle, implying that it was something every average person knew. Aso took the bait, and like a dim TV personality on a quiz show answered, “¥400?”, quadrupling the real retail price and exposing himself as the slumming charlatan everyone suspected he was.
He could have called the woman’s bluff and said, “I don’t know,” but Aso wants everybody to think he’s smart and his candor tends to have the opposite effect. Gruffness gives the impression of conviction, and conviction can often be mistaken for a plan. However, Aso’s recent comments about doctors, who he says lack “common sense,” and old people, who he says are lazy, prove that he mostly shoots from the hip. The guy doesn’t show much evidence of intellectual rigor.
And then there’s the prime minister’s peculiar need to show off his English language skills. At a press conference in Washington, he answered a question in Japanese and then added unnecessarily in English that he hoped his interpreter hadn’t messed up his remarks “in translation, OK?” After he received a phone call from Barack Obama following Obama’s election victory, reporters were baffled when Aso condescendingly commended the U.S. president-elect for his “tremendously intelligent use of English.”
Taken as isolated news items, each of these faux pas is good for a laugh. Taken as accumulating evidence of political ineptitude, they’re a matter of deep concern. The leader of the political satire group The Newspaper recently told Asahi Shimbun that the member of the troupe who normally impersonates Aso has become worried because audiences no longer laugh at his routine. It just isn’t funny anymore.