Germany's mambo king

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, flailing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder takes lessons in political survival from President Clinton.

Published October 29, 1999 10:00AM (EDT)

Times are so tough lately for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, dragged down by discord in his own Social Democratic party, regular drubbings in regional elections and a still-sluggish German economy, it's tempting to predict his government will fall sometime soon. But that won't happen.

In his one year in office, Schroeder has learned valuable lessons in political survival from that ultimate survivor, Bill Clinton, and even last weekend's most recent regional setback could in fact be seen as good news. The rival Christian Democrats won 41.6 percent of the vote in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a gain of 10 percentage points over 1994. But the SPD dropped less than two percentage points, less than expected, as in recent elections in Berlin, giving Schroeder a break in the expectations game, which is of course the game that matters most.

Schroeder must have moments where he wishes he was his old, inevitable predecessor, Helmut Kohl, accepted by the German people as a fact of life, if never a universally admired one. Recent polls show 40 percent of Germans would like to have Kohl as chancellor right now, compared to 38 percent for Schroeder. But while he may harbor private fantasies of breaking Kohl's record of 16 years in Germany's highest office, he would never envy Kohl's public persona. For one thing, Schroeder could never endure being as fat as Kohl. Schroeder hankers after looking good almost as much as he craves power. This isn't just vanity. It's also proof of how much he has been shaped as a leader by studying Clinton's style.

For years, Schroeder has gone to sleep at night comparing himself to Clinton, and in more ways than the obvious: Schroeder and the third of his four wives were known as the Clintons of Lower Saxony, and by most accounts, loved the comparison. Schroeder's third wife was "Hillu," and the similarity to "Hillary" was often noted with a kind of desperate pride. That marriage didn't work out because Schroeder believed he could never be chancellor with Hillu as his wife, given her knack for public gaffes -- one obvious contrast with Clinton. Another comes in the area of consequences. If Schroeder were an American politician dipping in the polls the way he has of late, some sort of scandal related to the sack would long since have presented itself and driven him from office. But this is not America, and Schroeder will have to do much more than astonish visiting U.S. journalists with his ham-handed flirting with their news assistants if he is ever to pay any political price for his reputation as a sort of schlumpy Lothario, an image that opens him up to all sorts of ridicule in the press.

"Kohl was a very good chancellor, especially for satirists and humorists, because he was very charming, very powerful and also very fat," said Oliver Maria Schmitt, editor-in-chief of Germany's popular satiric magazine Titanic. "But we had no problem when Schroeder came to power. We showed him as a more sexually successful man than Kohl. He's now married his fourth time, and Helmut Kohl is still married to his old housewife. We see Schroeder as a representative of this new, eager type of politician ... [with] absolutely no moral aims or values. They just like power. I think this is a reason why Schroeder is a very good friend with (Tony) Blair and adores Mr. Clinton, not only because of being in power but also because of his legendary cigar tricks."

Schroeder became ludicrous before he could become despised. His Brioni suits and enthusiasm for women have defined his time in office so far almost as much as his political wishy-washiness and the bitter pill of economic self-control he seems serious about selling to the German people. His knack for self-caricature was as important a reason for his troubled early months in office as his ideas or his support of the war in Kosovo. But it's unlikely any of this will matter much. Unless Schroeder panics (as he has admittedly shown signs of doing in recent weeks), he will get enough time in office to see if the German economy can rebound, and his public support along with it.

That's in part because of what experts on Germany see as a cautious national mindset. "Germans don't change horses in midstream," said Jackson Janes, executive director of the Washington-based American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. "They threw out the government last year, and that was a first. That would lead me to think Schroeder has until about a year from now where he can say that the reforms took, maybe a dip in unemployment or some movement in the economy."

Post-Kohl Germany needed a transitional figure to move it beyond the old chancellor's country-doctor prescription of two aspirin and a big plate of wurst to anyone feeling the ache of Germany's economic reunification. Schroeder is more like a Fuller Brush salesman, hopping on some new scheme and talking it up like he expects you to buy his rap just because he's putting a lot into it. The problem is, this sort of approach works better in America, where voters' memories are short. Germans are used to putting things in a larger context, and they know just what Schroeder is doing when he leans left -- like he recently did by speaking in favor of a law establishing an early retirement age of 60 and a new tax on the wealthy -- and then leaning right, as he reiterated his determination to freeze pension benefits next year as part of a plan to trim more than $16 billion in federal spending on social programs.

Even though Schroeder comes from an authentic working-class background, his efforts to campaign on behalf of SPD candidates in the recent regional elections did not go over well. He's seen as a yuppie now, and union members and others in the SPD's classic left constituency view his belt-tightening measures as a form of betrayal. When Schroeder first took office, he made a lot of noise about being a traditional Social Democrat. He insisted he could solve Germany's economic problems without having to mess with the old equation of heavy social spending to pay for such services as national health care, taken for granted here. But when prominent party member Oskar LaFontaine bolted the government, Schroeder set about redefining himself as a Tony Blair-style liberal by making economic viability a top priority.

Most political analysts here see this middle course as Schroeder's only hope to make something of his chancellorship, given the difficulty of actually making the sort of compromises required to govern while keeping a left-wing constituency happy. But by holding firm, Schroeder risks alienating his own party.

Schroeder may be a bit of a bumbler, and he may have lost focus about who he wants to be as a German leader, but the key question remains where the country winds up a year or two down the road, which will determine whether he has a shot a winning a second term. In fact, some politically savvy Berliners even wonder if Schroeder overdid the fashion-victim persona just so he would find it easier later to show how many hard lessons he has learned in office. If he and Blair take many of their political moves from the U.S., why not learn the ultimate lesson and craft yourself as a political survivor, able to pull through the lowest lows and keep smiling? There's an art to making enough of an impression to be ridiculed, and not just for banging your knees on car doors like Gerald Ford. Schroeder seems to excel in this regard.

Schroeder just has to avoid looking so Clintonesque when it comes to his approach to policy. Words like "wobbly" and "zig-zag" too often crop up. "The motto of the mambo chancellor is two steps forward, one step back -- or vice-versa," cracked the rightist Die Welt this month.

That sort of lacerating, on-target criticism has taken a toll on Schroeder, who will need time to grow into the role of chancellor. He has clearly been shaken by a series of stinging rebukes to the SPD and its coalition partner, the Greens, and stronger-than-expected showings for Kohl's party, the Christian Democrats. Even normally fringe right-wing parties leaning hard on xenophobic slogans like "German Jobs for Germans" and "Get Out Foreigners" have made electoral gains, as did the former communists, whose somewhat bizarre electoral strategy featured campaign ads in cinemas (before the trailers) showing a variety of naked people happily swimming under water. Germans have a reputation for making even the uncomplicated complicated, and their political hurly-burly shows its a much deserved reputation.

Splits in the German left are fascinating, all the more so because of the German impulse toward analysis and theorizing. Schroeder has been reeling ever since LaFontaine left the government in disgust, and this autumn LaFontaine has become the talk of Berlin with his book blasting Schroeder for turning his back on the bedrock principles of the party and jumping on the globalization bandwagon. "The German left still has an unsolved conflict between two groups," explained Jochen Buchsteiner, a political writer for the high-profile intellectual weekly Die Zeit. "The one group is the traditional left group which is oriented toward LaFontaine, saying that globalization is something you have to fight against and you have to preserve the German model; and on the other hand you have the so-called modernizers, Schroeder and other people on the left, saying, 'No, we have to adopt our system to globalization.'"

Schroeder took a step toward asserting his leadership qualities last week by stepping on the toes of his popular foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, the most prominent member of the Green Party. The Greens joined the SPD a year ago to form the current government in a "red-green" coalition that no one saw coming. Fischer opposed delivering a tank to Turkey as part of a possible arms deal, because of the Turkish record on human rights. The German yellow press reported that Fischer complained of "harassment," but a spokesman described the meeting they held lat last week to clear the air as "an open and good talk," which is apparently the local version of what in Washington they call a "frank and cordial exchange of views."

The Greens are in even worse shape than the Social Democrats, sending signals that political extinction is not altogether out of the question. The Greens were created as an opposition party, grew toward prominence as an opposition party, and seem incapable of shedding this legacy; one telltale sign of their institutional weakness comes in the rules, hotly contested by Fischer, prohibiting anyone holding high office from being a party leader.

The Christian Democrats are licking their chops, even though their 16 years in power make it a little hard for them to play the opposition game too vigorously. Even the CDU acknowledges that it's unlikely the current coalition government will fall in the next couple of years. They can afford to be patient, since Schroeder's mixed signals make the CDU look good by comparison.

"Schroeder cannot take this big step from the left to the middle, or to the right of the middle," said Norbert Barthle, one of a new wave of younger CDU representatives trying to plan the party's future. "That's good for us, because we are the party situated in the middle. Schroeder has no choice. He must go to the left, otherwise his own party will not support him."

But Barthle and others may be forgetting the lessons Schroeder has gained from Bill Clinton's political act. As much as apparent rudderlessness drives political professionals and media types crazy, it can also translate into a bizarre staying power. People might in the end rather like politicians who can reinvent themselves constantly, a fact attested to by Clinton's current 56 percent approval rating (according to Gallup). There is something modern and television-age about ignoring even the recent past, and that's just what Schroeder does.

"At the beginning, before he was voted chancellor, I think he was very good on TV," said German television actress Iris Boehm. "But at the moment it's different. He's not sure about his image any more. He seems to have lost his sense of humor. He feels attacked now very quickly if people are asking questions he doesn't want." In the process of changing his public image from lighthearted to serious, she predicts he might loose some of his media-genic appeal. "I think Clinton does have charisma, and I think most German women think the same about Schroeder, but somewhere along the line he has lost some of this charisma, around the time LaFontaine left. He doesn't know any more who he wants to be."

It's an axiom in those two great American spectacles, politics and sports, that you make your own luck. Clinton may have been very lucky to scrape through his various harrowing episodes and still have relatively high poll numbers. Or he may have learned some lessons from Ronald Reagan about the importance in a television age of playing a part. Politicians like Blair and Schroeder who take that lesson and run with it may be the ones laughing last

Short-term trouble can add up to long-term disaster, but smart politicians ignore the carping of their critics and concentrate on doing what they have to do. As publicly as he wrestles with himself, Schroeder has learned from a good enough teacher to remember that in the end.

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

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