Where’s the party?In his inauguration speech, President Moon Jae-in used the expression “Democratic Party administration” to demonstrate his will to run the government with the party. At a dinner with Democratic Party leaders on June 9, Moon pledged to work with the party and promote figures that the party recommends.
A month has passed, and while the Moon administration is clearly visible, the Democratic Party’s presence is not very big. All the cabinet appointments have been made, but the party and Blue House don’t seem to be discussing the selections closely. The Democratic Party’s leader, Choo Mi-ae, even said she was notified of Lee Nak-yeon’s nomination to the prime minister post 10 minutes before the announcement.
The ruling party doesn’t seem to be actively backing the presidency. It is busy with urgent issues like passing the supplementary budget plan and the government organization act. The two issues have become entangled as the National Assembly is simultaneously holding confirmation hearings.
The ruling party is not critical of the Blue House, either. For instance, the party leadership is not addressing Blue House staffer Tak Hyun-min’s controversial remarks about women. Female lawmakers have conveyed to the Blue House that they do not believe Tak is fit for the job, but there has been little response. Tak accompanied President Moon to Germany on Wednesday for the G-20 summit in Hamburg.
There are various reasons for the ruling party’s weak presence. One of them is the uncomfortable relationship between the party’s leader and the Blue House. Choo is reportedly disappointed by how the Blue House has treated her. She was notified about the cancellation of a meeting with President Moon 30 minutes beforehand, while she was getting her hair ready. As a ruling party leader, she hasn’t met with the president one on one, and they don’t talk on the phone often.
But the Blue House is not to be blamed entirely. Choo may not have given enough trust to Blue House officials, and she once said about the United States and Korea’s planned missile defense system, “A war could break out because of Thaad,” a remark that garnered resentment from both inside and outside the party. That’s why Choo is considered to have brought the poor treatment on herself.
The Democratic Party’s floor leader, Woo Won-shik, is actively communicating with the Blue House, but he still does not have full authority. Politics is the art of navigating reality, but the ruling party does not have much to offer when negotiating with opposition parties. One key Democratic insider said the president is too clean and goes by the rules. “For example, if the floor leader can cut 1 to 2 trillion won [$860 million to 1.7 billion] from the 11 trillion won supplementary budget at his discretion, negotiations could go more smoothly, but the president is not used to political compromise.” Another Democratic lawmaker said that both the party and the Blue House are subject to blame for the ruling party’s weak presence.
In order to have an active administration and stable political stance, the ruling party must play its role. It is better for President Moon to act now. It will get too noisy if lawmakers attempt to mend the relationship. Moon should keep in mind that the Blue House and ruling party share a destiny. There is precedence of one falling with the other. The Saenuri Party only tried to please Park Geun-hye’s Blue House, and the party was ruined after Park was impeached. President Roh Moo-hyun wanted to separate the Blue House from the party and did not dominate the party. But his experiment resulted in discord: as the president’s rating fell, lawmakers defected to save themselves. Roh’s Uri Party was divided and lost power.
President Moon does not feel at home with party politics. As the most urgent issues are nuclear threats from North Korea, job creation and criminal justice reform, re-establishing a relationship with his party must be a low priority for Moon. Perhaps he is optimistic that it will all go well naturally.
Moon is determined to push for his agenda at the beginning of his administration. When his power is solid, he may not feel the importance of the relationship between the Blue House and ruling party. But when he faces challenges, he will need the party’s help. Moon cannot make the nation better without support from the ruling party and the legislature.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 6, Page 28
*The author is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.