[Viewpoint] Needed: A courageous leader

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[Viewpoint] Needed: A courageous leader

It was a famous line delivered by then-presidential candidate George H. W. Bush at a 1988 Republican National Convention: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” His pledge not to use tax hikes as a means to tackle the massive federal deficit inherited from the past Reagan years became the crux of his election platform. He wrangled with Democratic campaign rival Michael Dukakis, who argued that tax increases were inevitable.

Eventually, Bush won the hearts of conservative taxpayers across the board and the presidency. After he took office, the economy turned from bad to worse with the jobless rate and bankruptcy filings hitting highs not seen since the Great Depression.

By the end of his term, fiscal deficits had swelled to $355 billion, 10 times higher than the figure Bush had promised. In his second year as president, Bush signed a budget compromise with the Democrats that included higher taxes and government spending to boost the economy, costing him the trust of his Republican Party and conservative voters who had believed the “no new taxes” promise.

A low tax policy has always been the Republican’s selling point among its middle-class voter base. Bush had inflated it with strong rhetoric. But a poor economy had made Bush move away from his party and voters. W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “The most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency.” Bush had to bend a principle required of a Republican president to serve what was best for his country’s economy. He proved to be a man of moral courage.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil had been a well-known intellectual of the Marxist school before serving his government. But four years of service as finance minister and eight years as the country’s president transformed him from traditional socialist to a neoliberal in pursuit of growth and market reform.

In the wake of the Asian financial meltdown in 1997, he laid off 33,000 public servants and froze salaries for those who survived. He came under fire by socialist intellectuals around the world for selling out to capitalism and globalism. Yet as a state leader, Cardoso chose better living conditions for his people through addressing hyperinflation and the fragile economy over his past ideological convictions. Like Bush, he showed moral courage in doing his job.

It is frustrating to watch Rep. Park Geun-hye’s unyielding position on the Sejong City controversy. Park, a former Grand National Party head who consented to the project to relocate some government offices to South Chungcheong Province as proposed by the Roh Moo-hyun administration, maintains that the ruling party and President Lee Myung-bak must remain faithful to the original promised plan.

She has been too wrapped up in the abstract realm of principle to see that the national interest is at stake. A wise leader should stop when realizing that the promise made to the people had been wrong and keeping it may do more harm than good. A courageous leader would then undo the promise and explain the potential harm to the people.

If Rep. Park truly believes the original plan is sound, she must explain how dispersing the capital’s functions to two separate cities would benefit both the Chungcheong provinces and the nation as a whole. She must be able to confidently say that leaving the legislature, the presidential office and a few other government offices in Seoul and shifting other government offices to Sejong City could help the country’s administration and serve the country’s long-term plan for a unified nation.

She must prove that the administrative district can prosper as a city. In short, she must show that her conviction is well-founded and not just an easy resort to regional populism.

Meanwhile, President Lee must present a viable blueprint that outshines the original Sejong City plan. He must build a future-oriented green and industrial city to assuage and persuade the Chungcheong people and his opponents.

People don’t just pack up and move to a new place because a couple of government buildings are there. The city must offer good jobs, good schools and comfortable living conditions. The country needs many such cities. Park and the opposition parties should first wait to see the alternative plan before launching attacks on the government. Politics cannot work in an ideological straightjacket. A courageous leader should be able to bend and retreat if doing so can help the country and its people.

Let’s see if Rep. Park proves to be one.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie
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