Many Japanese watched on television at least part of the face-to-face debates between U.S. presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush. Both candidates are said to be more or less middle-of-the-road types,with no defining differ ences in political philosophy. In my view, however, Bush showed himself to be a good Republican and Gore a good Democrat. They gave meaning to the debates by presenting contrasting policy options against a backdrop of the large budget surplus.

The debates reminded me of the relationship between former President Ronald Reagan and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. In those days, when the Cold War was still on, conservative parties around the world were bound by a degree of solidarity. They had much in common, not only in security matters, but in domestic policies, too. At least they seemed aware of the need to follow common policies. Reagan’s policy was in no small measure Japan’s policy as well.

There was a similar degree of commonality in the policies of Social Democratic parties. President Francois Mitterrand of France and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany, for example, shared common beliefs but disagreed considerably with Reagan. The Gore-Bush debates are a reminder of the underlying differences in political philosophy that continue to this day.

The debates provided me with an opportunity to consider Japanese politics in an international context. In the mid-1980s, politicians here labeled themselves “conservative” or “liberal” in an attempt to distinguish themselves from other parties. To all appearances, however, those attempts fizzled. But it did suggest that they were vaguely aware of the international context of Japanese politics.

In subsequent years, however, Japan became engulfed in a series of financial and other crises, and that kind of political awareness seems to have disappeared. Politicians no longer speak in international terms, on the grounds that they must first address Japan’s immediate problems.

The impression is that Japanese politicians no longer bother even to feel “conservative” or “liberal.” What we are now seeing, I would say, is the “politics of the present” that gives priority to anything that helps resolve the problems the nation currently faces. Gone is the self-restraint that in some ways disciplined politics of earlier times.

Political thinking has little meaning unless it is buttressed by long-term principles. Such long-term outlook is lacking in the “politics of the present.” As a result, Japan’s political parties have, to all intents and purposes, become internationally isolated, making it difficult to conduct dialogue even among themselves.

The “politics of the present” tries, first and foremost, to please voters by offering various services, or pork. In fact, that is what the Liberal Democratic Party is trying to do. Such free spending, of course, is a recipe for fiscal disaster. Giving it a “social democratic” twist is an insult to social democratic forces.

Such politics, of course, has nothing to do with the “conservative” stance of the Republican Party of the United States. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that there is reportedly little or no exchange between the LDP and the Republicans.

Having listened to the Gore-Bush debates, I cannot but feel that Japanese political parties have lost the sense of direction, or an ability to explain where they are going. Of course Japan has its own problems, and the parties should tackle them in their own way. The problem with them is that they are unable to explain how they will address domestic problems from a long-term perspective.

The problem, in other words, is that they are stuck, as it were, holding short-term visions that prevent them from considering long-term policy options. Instead of looking squarely at this reality, they are concerned primarily about the coming elections. That is a sad commentary on the state of Japanese politics.

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