It’s September, and Japan is in the grips of selection fever. This month Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi steps down, and the ever-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will choose a new president. To all intents and purposes, due to the party’s parliamentary dominance, selection of an LDP leader is tantamount to election of prime minister.

In the United States, too — where no sooner does one election end than the next one begins — selection fever is also rife, with speculation rampant on who will be the presidential contenders to succeed George W. Bush in 2008.

During the Bush administration the Republicans have not only had the leadership ball in their court, they have owned the ball; and all players for the presidency are being judged, willy-nilly, in relation to the incumbent.

Despite losing the Connecticut primary, Sen. Joe Lieberman (Dem., Conn.) is continuing to run, and apparently has his sights on the White House. Nothing is going to get in the way of this “George Bush with a yarmulke.” (Please, all you people scanning the Internet for anti-Semites, don’t write in: It will only upset my mother.)

As for John McCain, the Republican front-runner, Bush allegedly referred to his candidacy by paraphrasing an ad for, if you will excuse the pun, frozen corn: “What McCain? He’s at it Again?”

And what of the Democrats, who are desperately trying to assure everyone that they are still viably patriotic. Actually, I telephoned both Ned Lamont, the young rebel who defeated Joe Lieberman, and Hillary Clinton, senator from New York and wife of the man who was in the White House with Al Gore.

Mr. Lamont shares a name with that delightful character from “Singin’ in the Rain,” Lina Lamont; and when I spoke with him on the phone, he immediately put on Lina’s high-pitched whining voice and denounced Bush with her very words: “An’ I can’t stand ‘im!”

The big question

As for Sen. Clinton, I cut right to the quick, firing the big question: “Are you going to be a candidate in 2008?”

She replied: “That depends on what your definition of ‘be’ is.”

I then asked her who her favorite candidate for vice president was, and she came back with an answer that stunned the Dickens out of me.

“Tony Blair. He’s already proven that he would make a great vice president. And we have a terrific election motto: ‘He’s Our Boy Now.’ “

But the Republicans are not about to let Democrats define themselves. They know that this could be the beginning of the end for them. The genius of Bush and his oily spin doctors is that they tell you who you are, whoever you are. They have labeled all Democrats (except Sen. Lieberman, a confession-box Republican) with such pithy epithets as “latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, sushi-eating, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving liberals!’

You’ve got to admire the marketing skills of these people. Would you want to be all rolled into one, like a huge sushi roll, and labeled with a use-by date that ended on Sept. 10, 2001?

I mean, if you’re talking labels, Lyndon Johnson was a speed freak, John Kennedy a sex fiend, and Richard Nixon a liar. But would LBJ have been caught dead behind the wheel of a Volvo? Did JFK ever even consider piercing his own body? And Richard Nixon, who was known to lace his coffee with ketchup, would have looked down his nose at a latte, that is, had there been a Starbucks in his native Yorba Linda, California.

But let us leave Yorba Linda and return to Japan, where that selection process is in progress — and where politics have more and more come to resemble those in the United States, with Japan’s leaders looking first to America for guidance and support.

How would the candidates for prime minister here fare in the hurly-burly of American political nomenclature?

Well, any way you look at it, “sushi-eating” doesn’t really work as a practical denunciation in Japanese political circles. Maybe it would have a bit of clout if it were changed to “whale-sashimi-eating.” Furthermore, Japanese politicians usually don’t even drive themselves, let alone ride in a Volvo or, for that matter, any non-Japanese car. And none of the contenders for LDP leader is known to read the New York Times or pierce their ears, navels or what-have-you.

But we should not despair, because American-style name-calling could work in Japan, too. After all, isn’t Koizumi an Elvis-impersonating, (liberal-leaning) Asahi Shinbun-reading shrine-worshipper? He has certainly set a mean precedent and is the personification of the phrase, “A hard reactionary to follow.”

Fail with flying colors

If you look at the three main candidates for the LDP leadership, you will find they all fail the post-Koizumi audition with flying colors. Foreign Minister Taro Aso has admitted to being a karaoke-crooning manga addict. Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, being a trained sommelier, is a self-confessed Pinot Noir-nerd (his saving grace, however, is that he shares the hobby of mountain biking with Bush — you never know, this might swing him the party leadership). And the front-runner, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, opened himself up to attackers by unashamedly stating, on a Fuji TV program on April 27, that he has dabbled in archery since his student days: a habitual arrow-slinger! By all rights, these guys shouldn’t stand a chance, being tainted as they are by their dicey “predilections.”

But there is one final thing which, if Japan were a democracy like the “world’s only true democracy” (I leave it to your imagination to guess which country that is), would disqualify the three above pretenders to the LDP’s Wasabi Throne out of hand.

Yes, you guessed it. The very name of their party condemns them to, at the very least, political purgatory. This name contains two words now taboo in the American lexicon: “liberal” and “democratic.”

Rightwing spokesperson and best-selling author Ann Coulter has described liberals as “traitors” and Democrats as “brain-damaged.” This hardly augurs well for a party that has the chutzpah to call itself the Liberal Democratic Party.

The only recourse for this party, if they want to continue to be in the good graces of the country that calls all the world’s political shots, is to change its name. Otherwise it runs the risk of accruing the displeasure of American Republicans and their leader.

In America the president has said, “You are either with us or against us.” As far as democracy is concerned, Americans have made it clear: “You’ve got to be like us if you want to be with us.”

Well, at least it’s a step up from, “You can do anything but lay off of my blue suede shoes.”

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