That ‘transcending ideology’ thing from Obama 2008? Angela Merkel did it. Obama hasn’t.


Last Sunday’s election wasn’t just a victory for the German center-right — it was a very personalized victory for Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, who will become just the third postwar chancellor to serve three terms.*  USflagGermany Flag Icon

Germans largely saw Merkel as the only viable chancellor candidate (sorry, Peer Steinbrück!), and they flocked to support Merkel for steering Germany largely unscathed through a global financial crisis and a subsequent eurozone crisis in an export-oriented economy that’s still growing and producing jobs for Germans.  They admire the fact that she’s steered the eurozone through the worst of its sovereign debt crisis and avoided the single currency’s implosion, all while tying bailouts for Greece and other Mediterranean countries to austerity and reform measures that would make more profligate countries (like Greece) more ‘German’ in their approach to state finances.

But beyond the infantilizing ‘Mutti’ meme or the idea that Merkel represents a ‘safe pair of hands,’ she has won over many Germans because she’s been such a pragmatic and non-ideological leader.  Though Merkel leads the ostensibly center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party), it’s really hard to know what the CDU stands for these days other than the continuity of another Merkel government — and that’s likely to pose a difficult challenge for Merkel’s successor in 2017 or 2021 or whenever.

Merkel’s made some ideological compromises to her Bavarian counterparts, the Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU, the Christian Social Union)  — for instance, she has avoided the question of marriage equality, preferring that the German constitutional court largely deliver equal rights and benefits to same-sex partners at a time when both conservative governments (in the United Kingdom) and leftist governments (in France) deliver legislative solutions.

By and large, though, Merkel eschews ideological litmus tests.  Merkel campaigned on an economic agenda that varies only slightly with that of her rival center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).  While the SPD favored a €8.50 minimum wage, Merkel pushed a sector-by-sector minimum wage approach.  Both parties supported increasing elements of the German social welfare model, such as child allowances and a rise in pensions.  While the SPD and other leftists pushed for tax increases, Merkel has been content to draw a line at merely no tax increases, to the disappointment of Merkel’s liberal coalition partners, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party), who were completely wiped out of Germany’s parliament in Sunday’s elections.  After the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima reactor in Japan in 2011, Merkel announced that Germany would phase out nuclear energy, thereby accomplishing in one fell swoop one of the German left’s top priorities since the 1970s — and perhaps the top policy goal of the Die Grünen (the Greens).

German political scientists refer to it as ‘asymmetric demobilisation‘ — Merkel has so blurred the lines between her position and the SPD position that on the top issues — economic policy, Europe, foreign affairs — the SPD can’t draw an effective contrast to her.

Merkel, in essence, has governed as a perfectly non-ideological leader.

Sound familiar?

It should to most Americans, who elected Barack Obama in 2008 in large part due to his pledge to transcend the increasingly polarized politics of the United States.  Here’s what Obama said upon accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for president that summer:

America, our work will not be easy. The challenges we face require tough choices, and Democrats as well as Republicans will need to cast off the worn-out ideas and politics of the past…. For eighteen long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said enough to the politics of the past. You understand that in this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result.

In effect, Merkel has done, in her quiet and unassuming way, what Obama has utterly failed to do — govern in a way that transcends traditional ideological divides.

You could say that Obama’s rhetoric is the standard boilerplate that any change candidate serves up in American politics — the same ‘Washington-is-not-the-answer’ tropes that Republicans and Democrats have rolled out since Ronald Reagan swept to power 33 years ago on an appealing anti-government message.  But Obama’s reputation in 2008 came mostly from his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic national convention on this precise issue:

Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

So there’s a lot of reason to believe that Obama genuinely believed he could transform the political dynamic in American politics.

But his absolute lack to do so is perhaps Obama’s greatest failure as a president.  Say whatever you want about his policies, the Obama era in many ways constitutes a high-water mark for American political polarization.  Republicans now lean even more to the right, in the thrall of a tea party movement that demands no compromise from Republican officeholders.

There are all sorts of rationales that explain why Merkel has succeeded in becoming non-ideological and why Obama hasn’t — but none of them are completely satisfying. 

Coalition German government versus divided US government 

The first obvious answer is that Merkel was forced to join with the SPD in a grand coalition between 2005 and 2009 during her first term in office — and she may be forced to do so again, given that the CDU/CSU fell five seats short of an absolute majority in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, after Sunday’s elections.  Moreover, the center-left holds an absolute majority in the Bundesrat, the upper house of Germany’s parliament.  That has forced Merkel to follow a more moderate path.

But the opposite happened in the United States when Republicans retook control of the US House of Representatives in November 2010.  Instead of working with Obama to govern on a more moderate course, House Republicans took the United States to the brink of sovereign default in the summer of 2011 to make a point about spending and debt.  They seem set on pushing the US government into a shutdown by next Monday unless legislators can find a budget solution — with another debt ceiling showdown looming in mid-October.  Sure, Obama has generally been more amenable to compromise than House Republicans.  But House Republicans didn’t run for office on the campaign pledge of transcending polarization.  Obama did.

Historical roots of conflict and consensus

You could also say that Germany’s postwar politics have revolved more around consensus than conflict — and that’s true.  Contemporary German politics sprang out of the country’s humiliating defeat in World War II and its quiet push to rebuild its moral credibility by forcefully rejecting its Nazi past.  You could say, conversely, that Italian postwar politics remains so fraught because the current ideological divide between the Italian left and right dates back to the Italian civil war that pitted conservatives and fascists against partisans and communists.

The US experience falls somewhere in between — you trace some of US political polarization back to the north/south divide of the US civil war in the 1860s and the consequences of the battle for civil rights that started with Reconstruction and ended with desegregation and the legislative civil rights laws of the 1960s.  But you can also look to wide bipartisan consensus across the US political spectrum as well in recent decades, too — on housing policy, on foreign policy, on education, on deregulation and a dozen other issues.

Demographics as political destiny

We often hear that shifting US demographics — a ‘Millennial’ generation that leans left on both economic and social issues, a population that’s become more multicultural and less white with each year — also explains growing partisanship, with the Democrats pulling further to the left to win the votes of a coalition of the young, the poor, gays and lesbians, and virtually every ethnic and racial minority in the United States, and the Republicans working to maximize the support of an aging, mostly white, mostly conservative electorate.

But Germany faces its own demographic challenges, too.  Its aging population is already shrinking from a peak of 82 million in the early 2000s, which will place incredible pressure on its expansive safety net in the years to come.  Decades of Turkish immigration and the expansion of the European Union — and the free movement of workers within it  mean that Germany’s population is also less homogenous than it once was.  In contrast, just imagine the political row that would result if Mexican workers could enter the United States freely the way that Romanian and Bulgarian workers have been, since 2007, able to enter Germany.  But so far that hasn’t led to the kind of polarization or paralysis that is plaguing the United States.  If anything, German politics has become more consensus-driven as its population has become more diverse.

With three years left in his administration, Obama and his opponents seem further apart than ever.  But even if Merkel has managed to accomplish what Obama hoped to achieve, it’s not clear that Obama has the tools or congressional Republicans have the will to work together to follow the example of Merkel’s German approach.

* The other two, also CDU chancellors, were West Germany’s first postwar chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1949-63) and Helmut Kohl (1982-98), Merkel’s mentor who oversaw reunification with East Germany.

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