How Peer Steinbrück became the Bob Dole of German politics


Peer Steinbrück is not going to be Germany’s next chancellor.Germany Flag Icon

Steinbrück’s standing in opinion polls has worsened since it became clear he would become the chancellor candidate of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, the Social Democratic Party) — the more that Germans get to know Steinbrück (pictured above), the more they dislike him, no matter how many Bavarian mountains he climbs between now and September 22.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that chancellor Angela Merkel is assured of reelection, because while her own Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union), together with the Bavarian Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union), leads the SPD in polls, it’s uncertain whether its smaller coalition partner, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democrats), will win enough support to meet the 5% threshold to win seats in the Bundestag, the German parliament, though the FDP has ticked ever so slightly upwards in polls in the past couple of months.

Polls have been consistently remarkable since before 2013 began, and they make for grim reading if you’re an SPD supporter.  Here’s the state of things with about six weeks to go until voting:


That wouldn’t just mean a loss, it would mean a Bob Dole-style loss —  think back to the 1996 presidential election when Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton, who seemed so vulnerable after the 1994 midterm elections brought a Republican sweep of Congress, sailed to reelection against Dole.  Clinton aides disparagingly joked after the fact that it was like virtually running for reelection unopposed.  Dole won just 40.7% of the popular vote to 49.2% for Clinton — a landslide the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the United States since.

To put into perspective the kind of loss that Steinbrück and the SPD is facing, it’s important to remember what happened in the previous 2009 election, which at the time was the SPD’s worst postwar election result.  Under Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had served as foreign minister and deputy chancellor in the Merkel-led ‘grand coalition,’ the SPD won just 146 seats in the Bundestag (a drop of 76 seats) with just 23% of the party vote and 28% of the constituency vote.  (Half of the 598 Bundestag seats are determined in first-past-the-post single-member constituencies, the other half are determined on the basis of proportional representation on the basis of statewide party lists).

But if Steinmeier’s 2009 performance was a tragedy, Steinbrück’s 2013 performance is turning out to be a farce.  It’s amazing to believe that Steinbrück is in danger of leading the SPD to an even poorer result that Steinmeier’s in 2009, especially with the Greens set to improve on their 2009 performance. 

Eeven if Merkel has to be creative in structuring a new coalition with Die Grünen (the Greens) or even a ‘grand coalition’ of the kind that governed Germany from 2005 to 2009, Steinbrück and the SPD seem set to become the big losers.  Steinbrück and other SPD leaders insist that they won’t join a new coalition with the CDU-CSU unless Merkel agrees to step down as chancellor, but if the SPD does as poorly as polls have shown all year long, it will hardly be in a position to make demands to Merkel — polls also show that voters prefer Merkel as chancellor by consistent 2:1 margins.

Part of Steinbrück’s difficulty is the same problem that bedeviled Steinmeier.  Steinbrück, who hails from the conservative wing of the SPD and who served the finance minister during the ‘grand coalition,’  has had a difficult time drawing a contrast with Merkel after spending four years supporting Merkel’s economic policy.  A champion of former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s landmark Hartz IV reforms that cut unemployment benefits, Steinbrück was hardly the kind of candidate with a man-of-the-people persona, even before he sniffed that he would never buy a bottle of pinot grigio for just €5.

Although he has tried to differentiate himself from Merkel by calling for tougher banking regulation and the introduction of a minimum wage, there’s not much reason to believe Steinbrück would chart a radically different course than Merkel on Germany’s finances.  Furthermore, given that the SPD has consistently been even more pro-Europe than Merkel, it’s difficult for Steinbrück to criticize Merkel’s decisions on European Union policy from a populist, anti-European approach (though there’s not a lot of evidence that German voters, outside Bavaria, the Bundesbank and the German constitutional court, at least, have much of an appetite for a more anti-Europe policy).  That’s left Steinbrück to champion any issue of the day that might gain him traction, like his recent efforts to make a campaign issue out of revelations of U.S.-German cooperation over PRISM, the intelligence-gathering program of the U.S. National Security Administration, a campaign issue.

Steinbrück’s real problem is that Germans just don’t seem to like him — in the way that U.S. voters just never took to candidate Dole and never seriously considered him as a potential president.  The SPD knew that when it chose him to run as its chancellor candidate last September, however, and it’s curious why top SPD leaders didn’t push Hannelore Kraft, the popular minister-president of North-Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, fresh off her own victory in May 2012 to run for chancellor.  Kraft not only would have been the first female SPD chancellor candidate in history, but she boasts a strong economic record on the basis of the kind of interventionist stimulus policies in direct contrast to the more austere approach of Merkel, current finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, and even Steinbrück, which would have given her the ability to offer a truly alternative center-left economic vision for Germany.

Even in January, he was already plagued with a reputation for making gaffes.  In one interview, he famously argued that Merkel has a ‘female bonus,’ and he also said that he thinks the chancellor’s salary is too low.  His remarks after Italy’s national elections in February that ‘two clowns had won’ led Italian president Giorgio Napolitano to cancel a planned meeting with Steinbrück in Berlin, adding to doubts that Steinbrück is unlikely to energize Germany’s increasingly fraught relationship with struggling southern Europeans.

He’s also been subject to the kind of criticisms that you’d normally associate with a candidate on the right about the excesses of his personal finances after he left government in 2009 — he’s earned millions in the private sector and on the speaker circuit.  His ability as a campaigner hasn’t incredibly improved in the meanwhile, and Spiegel recently wondered if the SPD was hiding Steinbrück to limit the damage he may wreak on the party come September.

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