Monday, May 26, 2008

It is a fine plan...and it is worth the fighting for

After weeks of relentless bad news, the Fukuda Cabinet woke up to a some cheerier public support numbers today. In a poll conducted on Friday and Saturday by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the Cabinet's approval rating actually rose 3 points from the low recorded three weeks ago. A still pathetic 24% of those polled support the government. However, this uptick marks the first rise in the Cabinet's popularity since it was sworn in eight months ago .

The Cabinet's better numbers did not boost the fortunes of the Liberal Democratic Party. The percentage of voters saying that they support the LDP sank another 3 points to 31%, opening up a 5 percentage point deficit between itself and the Democratic Party of Japan, which earned the support of 36% of those polled.

Though the results are likely to provoke a nervous tic in the denizens of LDP headquarters, the ruling coalition would do iteslf a hell of a lot of good if it could send the message "Don't Panic" out to the Diet rank-and-file. From what was broadcast on Sunday morning's NHK Nichiyō Tōron, the ruling coalition is going to have a very decent couple of weeks ahead defending what has heretofore been a lead weight for the government: the new over 75 eldercare system.

Considering how the new plan was demonized in the buildup to Yamaguchi #2 by-election, one might think that having to defend the plan would have a deleterious effect on the ruling coalition's popularity.

While there are superficial resemblances between the upcoming struggle over the eldercare system to the fights over the extension of the Indian Ocean dispatch, the gasoline levy and the road construction bills, there are some significant dissimilarities as well--ones which bode ill for the opposition.

First, the opposition has no alternate plan other than reverting to the old system. In the Indian Ocean dispatch reapproval and the road construction bills, the opposition could argue it was fighting for a new approach, a reimagining of the nation's policies. In this instance, however, all the opposition has promised to do is put off change--despite the smoldering public sense that the previous system was doomed.

Second, the opposition is not stopping the imposition of the new system--only its reform. The new system is ongoing--the funds are being withdrawn directly from the pensions of the enrollees; the per-visit fees have already fallen to 10%. What the opposition can stymie or even reject is fiddling so as to make the system fairer, such as the proposal to lower the deductions of the very poorest seniors to 10% of the standard deduction.

Third, the new system offer a good, incentives-based compromise solution to the questions posed by created by medical advances leading to increases in lifespan. The debate on Nichiyō Tōron exposed the intellectual vacuity of the opposition's alternative visions for handling a complex set of competing social and economic goals.

In a nutshell:

- the Democratic view is that all Japanese are equal, ergo, all Japanese should all have the same health insurance system;

- the Communist view is that Japan has a lot of rich individuals and they should simply be forced to pay higher taxes to keep the current system solvent;

- the Socialist view is that women live longer so they will be paying more into the system in total, there are fewer doctors in certain areas and certain specialities, costs keep rising every year and we need this all to stop;

- and the Japan New Party...thinks that putting "ne" and "yo" after every statement makes that statement into an argument (seriously, it was excruciating).

If this is going to be the debate, then this is one that the ruling coalition wants to take place at length, under the cameras, in the House of Representatives committee chambers. Not only does the coalition have the better plan but they have Health, Welfare and Labour Minister Masuzoe Yōichi, the Cabinet's most popular minister, as the point man.

Finally, the original system and the reform bill are bitter medicine that in the end benefits no one but the public.

Contrary to the beliefs of the gopher-brained in the ruling coalition, the public respects the making of hard choices, once the reasons for the reform are explained to them. That was the miracle of "Koizumi magic" - the rapid switchover in public support numbers for tough, mold-breaking reforms once Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō and his subordinates began explaining why a reform or a decision was important.

As for what made Article 59 passage of the Indian Ocean dispatch reapproval and the road construction bills so damaging was the perception, correct as it turned out, that the primary beneficiaries of the passage of this legislation were, in order

1) the military establishments of other countries, and

2) rural district LDP Diet members and LDP member local government officials.

Not the Japanese public.

The new eldercare system is perceived, by contrast, to be electoral poison--with no identifiable client-patron rationale--and for that reason, gives the Cabinet and the ruling coalition a chance to win something they most desperately need: a reputation of being courageous.

Now ever since last year around this time, perhaps ever since the readmission of the postal rebels in late December 2006, the ruling coalition has offered not the slightest sense that it understand the public mood...or that it knows how to handle a legislative calendar.

Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo's and his Cabinet's eulogies have already been composed. However, the LDP and the Komeitō may have at last sunk so low that the members may be willing to go against their better political instincts and trust the public--rather than pandering to elements of it--and may, after having suffered the consequences of a year of atrocious calendar management, realized that getting bills passed on time after sufficient public debate is a part of being the normal functioning of a Diet.

If they have, then the battle over the reform of the eldercare system gives the ruling coalition a chance to halt the slide in its popularity and electability. The gains may be temporary--looming in the fall is the debate over the legislation formalizing the transfer of the gasoline levies to the general fund.

But dead and doomed are the Cabinet and the ruling coalition ?

Not if they argue the case for the eldercare system on the merits.

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