Merkel/Steinmeier is no Obama/McCain


BERLIN, Germany — Political debates, Germany discovered Sunday night, aren’t nearly as exciting when the opponents are on the same side.

The 12 million Germans who tuned in to see Chancellor Angela Merkel face off against the Social Democratic candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, were no doubt hoping for a contentious exchange of views two weeks before their country’s national election. On display, instead, were two politicians largely in agreement with one another on all the major issues.

This perhaps came as no surprise, since Steinmeier has spent the past four years serving in Merkel’s cabinet as foreign minister and vice-chancellor, a product of an unwieldy “Grand Coalition” between the country’s two major parties. But the 90-minute debate seemed to distill the peculiar political condition that Germany has been in for the past four years: It might not be long until Germans develop a new compound word to describe it, but for now it can be called a “crisis of boredom.”

Under the Grand Coalition, the party that would normally serve as the opposition has been incorporated into the government, which means the government’s positions have become the de facto national consensus, without any significant public debate. The manufactured peace thrashed out in backroom deals between the major parties has obscured a festering discontent, and a feeling of enervation among the public. The churlish symptoms of this national neurosis were on display Sunday night during the debate and afterward.

They were evident in the exasperated smiles of the journalists who served as moderators of the debate. They were evident in the passive aggressive Monday morning headline in the country’s widest selling national newspaper: “Yes, we yawn!” And they were evident in some of the dubious fantasies aired during the televised post-debate analysis. Most of the panelists agreed that the two candidates seemed to lack passion. Claus Peymann, director of Berlin’s famed Berliner Ensemble theater, said he had barely managed to stay awake during the debate and that he was fed-up with the country’s colorless leaders. He even suggested looking to neighboring countries for examples of more virile leaders: “We could use someone like Sarkozy or Berlusconi,” he claimed.

Both candidates claimed to agree that the Grand Coalition has been bad for the country’s political culture, that it should remain an exception rather than the rule, but they also felt compelled to defend their common record from the past four years. The effect suggested that the two of them, and their respective parties, wouldn’t mind teaming up for another legislative period. The widespread agreements between them eventually prompted one of the moderators to say that they were acting like an old married couple, rather than political rivals.

It’s Merkel who is largely responsible for the subdued tenor of the campaign thus far. Her above-the-fray, post-partisan demeanor as chancellor earned her such stratospheric approval ratings among the public that she’s decided to campaign the same way. She also still carries scars from her polarizing, pro-business campaign from 2005, in which her Christian Democratic party did considerably worse than expected.

This year, she’s managed to make it this far, two weeks before the election, without having yet given a clear indication of what precisely her platform is. Merkel has seemingly devoted her campaign to blurring the boundaries between the parties, the better to simply capitalize on her own personal popularity. Rather than specify her own ideas, she often simply signs on to any and all good ideas from the other parties: a little financial oversight from the SPD; lower taxes together with the pro-business FDP; environmental protection together with the Greens. In the debate, she focused on rhetorically trying to close any gap between her and Steinmeier, repeatedly using the word “we” and gesturing towards her rival when discussing the Grand Coalition’s work.

Steinmeier, for his part, spent much of the debate trying to resist Merkel’s embrace and to develop the contours of an independent profile. It was a tall order, as the German public didn’t know much about Steinmeier — who prior to becoming Foreign Minister, had been a behind-the-scenes functionary for the Social Democratic party — outside of the context of his role in Merkel’s coalition. During the course of the debate, he focused as best he could on their differences. The Social Democrats want to continue the country’s phase-out of nuclear energy, whereas the conservatives want to continue their use. He also claimed that Merkel’s plans to lower taxes were irresponsible in the midst of the economic crisis, and recommended instead a small increase in taxes for the wealthy. He also insisted on stringent regulations for salaries and bonuses at financial institutions. Also, just prior to the debate, Steinmeier tried to capitalize on discontent with the mission in Afghanistan by having the Foreign Ministry release a timeline to begin German troop withdrawals by 2013.

The polls seemed to indicate that Steinmeier had the better night, with a small majority finding him to be more convincing in the debate. But, his party is still so far behind the Christian Democrats in the polls that it looks increasingly like a renewed Grand Coalition might be the country’s only option. Clearly, Steinmeier would prefer to be chancellor himself, but given Merkel’s ideological flexibility, he could probably imagine worse than serving again as her foreign minister.

Whether the country will be able to accommodate four more years of managed consensus and swallowed dissent is another question altogether.