The Potential Cost of Political Paralysis: The Lesson of Japan

A political earthquake hit Japan this week, one which could hold important lessons for America's current political stalemates.  After a half-century of one-party rule, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was buried in parliamentary elections by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a loose coalition of generally left-of-center opposition parties.  The elections were less a matter of partisan competition than an explosion of pent-up disgust with an utterly failed political system personified by the LDP's long rule.  Ask yourself, what powerful popular forces could be unleashed here, if yet another presidency cannot manage to reform our dysfunctional health care system, restore rising wages for most American workers, and take steps to preserve the climate?

One striking aspect of this week's events in Japan is how long they took to happen.  For two decades, Japanese have lived with the consequences of economic stagnation and a feeble financial system, including declining incomes and wealth, as well as deflation.   Japan's private sector didn't lose its edge -- over the same years, for example, its auto companies became the world's best, and Japanese companies adopted information technologies at a prodigious rate.  The problem was consistently wrong-headed policies by a succession of LDP governments unwilling to enact any reforms that might impose costs on the entrenched interests - big banks, construction companies, small farmers, and more - vital to the LDP.  Sound familiar?

Junichiro Koizumi's prime ministership from 2001 to 2006 was a hiatus of sorts, but also a fluke and ultimately a failure: Following a series of scandals involving LDP leaders, the party gave ordinary LDP members a new role in choosing the next party leader - and was shocked when those members chose the outsider Mr. Koizumi.  But he was a maverick sitting atop a corrupt parliamentary party determined to resist new policies to address the country's deepening economic problems, and he finally left with little changed. 

Our own outsider president has much more support within his own party in Congress than Koizumi did in Japan's LDP-dominated Diet.  Yet, Democrats in Congress are not immune from the corrosive politics of entrenched interests, pulling them in many directions that together could fatally weaken new policy directions for our long-festering problems with health care, wages and climate change.  And if the current economic policies do not produce a strong recovery - and they might fail to do so - the pull of those interests and the push of rabid Republican opposition could produce a decade of stagnation here as well. 

For now, President Obama may have the same advantage with the public that the LDP enjoyed for a generation  - a discredited opposition.  Republican leaders from Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney to Dick Armey and even John McCain thus far have offered the public little beyond emotion-laden grievances bound up in outlandish attacks on the President as a Marxist, an appeaser, and even a budding Hitler.  They know better, but the attacks appease the far-right interests that now constitute much of the GOP's diminished base.  Moreover, the Republicans' growing resistance to talk seriously with the White House and the majority party, about the serious challenges facing average Americans, comes from entrenched economic interests as determined to avoid any of the costs of change as those that hobbled the LDP for a generation.  

Unlike Koizumi, President Obama won his office, in part, by putting together a financial as well as popular organization organized through the Internet, and so much less dependent on established interests.  One way to break the stalemate might be to direct that organization to help fund congressional candidates relatively independent of those interests.  But that would force the President to take on members of his own party, a risky and confrontational course at odds with his moderate and pragmatic temperament and political views.  Mr. Obama has one other course open to him: Exercise the mobilizing leadership that won him the nomination, targeted this time to members of Congress rather than the millennial generation and independent voters.  It will require knocking more heads together than he might like.  He can do that - just ask Hillary - and our ability to avoid a decade of decline may lie in the balance.