Stephen Yates: No permanent victory or defeat in politics

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As we enter 2019, a new election cycle is underway in both Taiwan and the United States. Since the 2018 midterm elections in the United States and the municipal elections in Taiwan, there has been a great deal of commentary and analysis, with many drawing inferences from the results to size up the prospects for both president’s re-elections in 2020.

While neither president was on the ballot in 2018, in both countries we use these nationwide (but not national) elections to measure the strength and weakness of parties, issues, and leaders. In the US it was a bit of a mixed bag, given that Republicans gained seats in the Senate, but lost their majority in the House and lost a handful of governorships. While somewhat of a split decision, the majority view (which I do not share) is the midterm elections were a referendum on President Trump’s tenure and his party paid the price. There seems to be a similar verdict in Taiwan – local elections nationwide were a rebuke of President Tsai’s leadership and her party paid the price.

These judgments may prove to be true over time, but we won’t know until the 2020 elections are upon us. Until then, there are many factors that give me pause before I draw long term conclusions from these recent results.

A key lesson comes to mind: politics is a continuum and these results only measure a moment in time. Historically, we often see a pendulum effect, with the ruling party losing seats in off-years, only to see the incumbent president win re-election in the next cycle. In the United States, this has happened countless times. In 2010, two years into President Obama’s term, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. Wild speculation ensued with regard to what this meant for President Obama’s re-election, which he went on to win two years later.

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The mid-1990s may be even more instructive in terms of how this pendulum effect may play out in Taiwan this election cycle. In 1994, President Clinton suffered a massive loss in the wave election that brought Republicans into the House majority for the first time in over 40 years. They also regained control of the Senate majority. Coming out of that cycle there were prominent magazine covers touting Newt Gingrich as “King of the Hill” and others featuring Clinton as the “Incredible Shrinking President.” President Clinton appeared to be doomed.

But then, a few key things changed the narrative and boosted Clinton into a second term. First, there was the terrible domestic terrorist attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City. It gave President Clinton an opportunity to draw on raw emotions, be seen as a leader, and somewhat opportunistically to redefine his opponents. Second, there were two budget stand-offs between November 1995 and January 1996. These allowed President Clinton to use the majesty and power of the Oval Office to get the upper hand in terms of public relations, if not on substance, just as his re-election campaign was getting into full swing.

One of the harder exercises in politics is, after a win or a loss, to take an honest assessment of what affected the results. It is a prerequisite to recovery and success. What qualities and candidates were a factor in the loss? What issues were framed best and which were framed poorly? What was your opposition able or unable to do to define you? What issues defined the electorate? What adjustments do you have in mind for the next election cycle to either keep or regain power? The key is not to just wait for the pendulum to swing on its own – it is to decide what you are going to do with your coalition to keep, or regain, your power.

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Bill Clinton did these things, but just as important, external events provided him with opportunities that were not knowable in the immediate aftermath of the midterm elections. We do not know the nature or extent of reflection undertaken by President Tsai and the close advisors trying to chart the course for her re-election. But, interestingly, at least one external event has occurred that has allowed her to somewhat change the narrative.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears to have read the Taiwan municipal election results as a rebuke not just of President Tsai, but of support for self-determination among Taiwan voters. Perhaps attempting to strike while the iron is hot, Xi Jinping pressed his case for unification, under terms known to be unacceptable to a supermajority in Taiwan, and reminded the Taiwan people that he reserves the use of force to impose Beijing’s will.

In terms of being able to recast impressions of leadership, President Tsai’s response to Xi may have been like President Clinton’s response to the Oklahoma City bombing.  It also provoked a wave of international statements of support for Taiwan, implicitly endorsing her position. However, it is too soon to tell how much to read into recent developments.

It would be a mistake to see political pivots as permanent. In politics, and in life, there are rarely permanent victories or defeats – only momentary waves and inflection points. Parties and leaders go through moments of strength, weakness and realignment. The future belongs to those who are able to adjust and adapt.

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