Politics & Policy

Bavarian Lessons

The German people have spoken-to us too!

Here are eight things Americans can learn from Germany’s recently completed election:

Thank goodness for our two major parties and the Electoral College. After weeks of intense campaigning, Germans (and others around the world) tuned in on election night and learned… nothing. The vote was split amongst the five major parties.

#ad#The right-of-center Christian Democrats got 35.2 percent; their traditional allies, the FDP, received 9.8 percent–no majority there. On the Left, the Social Democrats got 34.3 percent; their current allies, the Greens, garnered 8.1 percent; and the new way-out-there Left party that none of the other parties want to work with received 8.6 percent.

Somebody’s going to have to create a government out of this mess. The initial expectation was that the two largest parties would merge and create a government of centrist, watered-down, divided, no-real-change status quo policies, a state given the happy-talk title, “Grand Coalition.” But the Christian Democrats have, for now, rejected that idea.

Later on election night, the hot idea was the “traffic light” coalition–the red of the Social Democrats (keeping Gerhard Schroeder as chancellor) the green of the Greens, and the yellow of the FDP, an economically conservative, business-oriented party. But the FDP explicitly rejected that on Election Night, arguing they campaigned on a platform of economic reforms, and were not interested in keeping the current leadership and policies.

Eventually someone will form a government, but the negotiations could take weeks. The only time we get these kinds of messes in the American system is when a presidential candidate withdraws his concession, turns around the motorcade, and sends out his spokesman to declare, “our campaign continues.” And thankfully, that’s rare.

Anti-Americanism works. It worked for Schroeder in 2002, and he closed a huge gap during this year’s campaign. It wasn’t necessarily the dominant theme of his speeches, but it was there, whenever the topic of foreign policy came up. Whether it was a poster depicting flag-draped coffins of American soldiers, or urging Bush to take the military option “off the table” regarding Iran, it became clear that Schroeder never felt there was any political risk to this rhetoric. And while he could still lose the chancellorship, his dramatic comeback when everyone had written him off reveals that this electoral play still works with German voters.

There’s a Daily Kos effect overseas, too. One of the reasons that the three left-of-center parties aren’t expected to form a coalition is because of genuine differences between opportunistic anti-Americans, principled anti-Americans, and deranged anti-Americans. The blogosphere has been up in arms about George Galloway’s anti-American statements in Britain; but the nastiness is as strong out there. A Green-party poster depicted Merkel with a “W” crown, waving American flags, and with a McDonald’s pin; a cartoon dog was relieving himself on her poster. An “independent” anti-Christian Democrat site depicted Angela Merkel in a Monica Lewinsky pose, with a cigar-smoking President Bush.

Recall the rest of the German postwar leaders–Willy Brandt, Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl. For a long time, (West) German political culture always seemed buttoned down, stuffy, proper, intellectual if not outright dispassionate. Well, they’ve got passion now, but it’s not clear the anger and sneering are an improvement.

Fears of the EU accepting Turkey are not the dominant issue. That’s marginally good news for the U.S., which supported Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Merkel was adamantly opposed and wanted the Turks to get a “preferred partnership”–a half-measure that most Turks found insulting. Germans may be worried about economic competition from Turkish immigrants, but that did not seem to be the dominant topic in debates and on voters’ minds. The bad news for Turkey is that there wasn’t a big public stand in favor of accession, either.

Sometimes sexism is a problem. And sometimes a woman can just be a bad candidate. On Election Night, a few of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats were willing to blame her disappointing results on Germans who were unwilling to trust a woman with the reins of power. Maybe–Germany is one of the more traditional cultures in Europe when it comes to the role of women in society. But the Social Democrats never quite went on the attack on this issue, other than Mrs. Schroeder making a clumsy comment that Merkel couldn’t relate to most German women because she hadn’t had children. Well, neither had Gerhard Schroeder; his children are from his wife’s previous marriage. Schroeder is on his fourth marriage, by the way. This sort of thing is personal, but one wonders how good the chancellor is at dealing with life’s ups and downs and sticking with a decision in the face of adversity.

Early leads mean nothing. Merkel had a 20-point lead in June. Her collapse was much faster and steeper than President George Herbert Walker Bush’s slide from a 90-percent approval rating in 1991 to 39 percent of the vote in 1992.

Late leads don’t mean that much, either. We Americans know better than to listen to leaked exit polls, or anything from Zogby. But every major German pollster predicted the Christian Democrats to have a six or seven point lead over Schroeder’s Social Democrats, and the CDU was expected to get at least 40 percent.

Charisma still means a lot. There are plenty of reasons that Schroeder is called the Bill Clinton of Germany–he combines a working-class background, a childhood without a father, a telegenic style, and a remarkable ability to connect with ordinary Germans. Any opponent would have to bring their A-game against him; unfortunately, Merkel was hardly at the top of her game. Her speeches were lengthy, detailed descriptions of her plans; she appealed to the intellect, instead of the gut.

Schröder looks and sounds like a natural campaigner; Merkel, a former scientist, looked as if she would be more comfortable governing. Unfortunately for her, you have to campaign before you can govern. And it remains to be seen whether she will ever get that chance.

Jim Geraghty writes TKS for NRO.

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