Remember that Kane op-ed in NYT last week? The one that he’s been ridiculed for ever since? Turns out it was just an exercise in “Swiftian satire”. Just that no one found it very funny, except for Kane himself: “What is hilarious is that some academics in Taiwan and elsewhere stayed up late at night reading the piece literally and trying to build cases to refute its content, and castigating my logic and morals… Take your wife out to dinner! Professor or Joe Blogger, it was time miss spent.” Its OK, Paul, I get paid to do this shiz (just not enough to take my wife out to the restaurants she likes).
Accusing Tsai of being a ‘fake Hakka’ because she doesn’t speak the language was crass and potentially damaging, especially given KMT language policies during the one-party era. So Ma quickly rolled out two ads, both apparently featuring language teachers exulting Ma’s serious attitude toward language acquisition. The ads are redolent of the ‘testimonies’ CSB used in 2000, in which school teachers, classmates etc. from the Tainan countryside (and a Nobel prize winner) testified to his good character, as part of the ‘CSB isn’t a madman who is going to declare independence’ cycle of ads. Ma needed a response, because this is the type of thing that could easily spiral out of control and mess up the campaign agenda (KMT peeps: remember the economy!). Tsai doesn’t want to initiate a big fight over identity, but something like this could be another gift horse (without the piggy-banks how much less buzz would Tsai have right now?). I’m not at all surprised that Ma wanted to nip it in the bud, but I predict that these ads won’t achieve that.
In these ads we’re asked to picture Ma as a great student–I don’t doubt he is–resonant in Taiwan where a substantial proportion of people spend a lot of time learning languages. We are shown the testimony of venerable teachers (Taiwanese respect teachers right?), who also happen to represent the ethnic groups Ma wants to appeal to (so, doubly effective right?). We’re told that learning the language is Ma’s way of showing respect, not just a tool for vote-getting (a charge that has been levelled at DPP candidates for many years re: Hakka voters). Personally, I look at these ads and think, ‘I can believe Ma is decent, earnest and a terrific student’. But, so what? You (not Ma personally, but his lieutenant) questioned someone’s identity (in a polity where identity is an ultra-sensitive issue and one on which the KMT is hugely disadvantaged) on the basis of something your party was largely responsible for. That doesn’t go away just because Ma looks like he gets straight A’s.
There is quite a bit of research in political communication on the effect of politicians’ looks, voice, body language etc. on voter attitudes. This latest piece just came out, and it supports what we already know: good looking people do better in politics. There’s also evidence, in a variety of contexts using experimental and real world designs, that men with deeper voices and more muscular frames do better, and that the effect of physical looks is more pronounced for women than men candidates (you guessed that last one, right?). I hadn’t considered this in the case of Taiwan2012, until I came across a recent SCMP article (sorry no link, but its “Tourism conquers the great divide” by Lawrence Chung, Oct 1 2011). The article itself is a bit of frippery about tourists from China marveling at Taiwanese freedoms, but it goes on to quote a Chinese student at NTU as saying: “Oh, Ma Ying-jeou is very handsome and very gentlemanly, while Tsai Ing-wen is very smart and sharp.” Personally I think this is an election for someone who is smart and sharp (handsome is an irrelevant quality when it comes to fixing the economy), and I think Ma will downplay the looks card. Attacking Ma for being an ineffective show pony has been a staple in DPP ads for years–I remember Li Ying-yuan in the 2002 Taipei Mayor race had a great line (from memory) “再怎麼帥，不能這麼草率” (no matter how handsome you are, you can’t be this slapdash). Didn’t help Li, but Tsai will use similar.