Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Manager Merkel

Angela Merkel once delivered a speech as opposition leader at Georgetown University in which she outlined a more pro-Bush, pro-Iraq war foreign policy. During the Q &A I was lucky to ask her a question about how she justified such a stance in light of the poll numbers showing over 90% of Germans against the invasion of Saddam Hussein's regime. I don't remember all of the specifics of her response--I think she mentioned something to the effect that leaders need to lead and that opinion polls are not the be-all and end-all of politics. But, I do remember being extremely impressed with the eloquence and forcefulness of her answer and concluding that she was undoubtedly chancellor material.

I think that her tenure as chancellor thusfar has proven her abilities--managing a fissiparous grand coalition, steering the country through the worst economic crisis in decades, pushing through needed reforms in family policy, strengthening foreign partnerships and continuing efforts to deepen the European Union. She has proven a brilliant manager, but not quite the leader that I saw several years ago.

There has been no real vision or unifying theme to her chancellorship. Of course, she was burned in 2005 by having too sharp a profile, has had to manage an ideologically diverse government, and, like any politician, must always think about re-election (in the context of a risk-averse electorate). Moreover, there is nothing wrong with being managerial--a well-respected leadership type--which is especially welcome in light of the recent charisma overload in Europe with Putin, Berlusconi and Sarkozy.

But, as many others have pointed out, there are major costs to such a timid persona and campaign strategy. Naturally, like every election some have tried to dramatize the moment as a major crossroads and caesura. Maybe 2009 is not one of these existential moments, but there certainly are a variety of pressing policy issues that need more than mere management.

In foreign policy, for instance, the Afghanistan deployment needs to be addressed. No longer is the Lebenslüge--that the Bundeswehr is not involved in combat--tenable. Prescient commentators noted years ago that actual combat was going to happen sooner or later and that the armed forces (and general public) would have to prepare themselves for this eventuality. The current situation--deteriorating security, questionable decisions generated by an unwillingness to engage in combat--is doing more harm than good. German leaders are at a decision point--withdraw or commit fully. Unfortunately, none of the parties or their leaders has prepared the German public (or allied governments) for either of these policy shifts. Instead we get grandstanding from the likes of Schröder and Steinmeier--and faux populism from the Left Party. The list of other similar policy challenges is rather long: the demographic time bomb, bureaucratic red tape, education, export dependency, or energy policy.

I don't want to contradict myself. I am not advocating a dramatic campaign with clear policy differences, real debate and fundamental choices offered to the electorate. But, I do wish that the major candidates would appear more presidential, so to say. Admittedly, I have had very low expectations for the SPD this year. The party has long struck me as exhausted from governing, bereft of leaders and in need of a longish spell in opposition to regenerate (and to deal with its exposed left flank). Even Steinmeier's better-than-expected performance in the television debate has not changed my opinion (although it does reinforce the point I made in previous posts about a late SPD surge).

But, I was really expecting more from Merkel. Of course, she has proven time and time again that she can surprise everyone. In fact, some have pointed out that underestimation of her abilities is a calculated and very effective tactic. But, there comes a point when it is appropriate to ask if that's all there is. I fear that with her timid, dispositionally conservative demeanor (as chancellor and campaigner), she will lose her opportunity to rise from a great manager to a real leader. I'd like her to heed her own advice and see her actually lead.

--Eric Langenbacher

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