She Doesn’t Put on a Show
Angela Merkel’s Style
Chancellor Angela Merkel cultivates a different political style than her predecessors – in the way she presents herself, in her dealings with others, in bringing about compromises. This has little to do with the special circumstances of her chancellorship, namely, the alliance with the SPD in the grand coalition and the unprecedented dominance of one party – her party – in the Bundesrat. Ms. Merkel is a different kind of person than her predecessors Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl, and Gerhard Schröder.
She doesn’t put on a show, except by attempting to impress with this lack of showmanship –an attempt that no one is supposed to notice. Ms. Merkel doesn’t have Kohl’s room-filling presence; she doesn’t cultivate Schmidt’s managerial approach. And Schröder’s “old boys’ club” attitude is totally foreign to her. Some of the characteristics ascribed to her by her fellow politicians derive from this difference, including the claim that she does not lead. Schröder’s outburst on the evening of the Bundestag elections – i.e., that the CDU chairwoman shouldn’t get carried away since she wasn’t going to be voted in as chancellor – stemmed from his own conception of what a chancellor should be: an impressive embodiment of power. But as Ms. Merkel just reported on television, the question that went through her head at the time was: “Haven’t you overlooked a basic fact?”
It is characteristic of the chancellor that, in a conversation with an important representative of the CDU’s coalition partner [i.e., the SPD], she remarked: “My problem isn’t with the Bundestag faction. My problem is with the minister presidents [of the federal states].” Back in the day, before she had any prospect of becoming chancellor, she had already had the chance to make similar remarks about long-established party colleagues who have known each other for decades. By now, she has explained the circumstances and conditions of her chancellorship many conversations with SPD ministers. Her own political past in the CDU was part of it: She was a member of a rather small state association [Landesverband], the one from Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. She wasn’t part of the CDU Schüler Union [i.e., the organization for high school students], nor was she in the Junge Union [i.e., the Young Union or youth association]. She had to learn about the history of the old Federal Republic – and therefore about its government and party system, its pitfalls, personal networks, and political currents – by reading and listening. That she would get to where she is today was doubted first and foremost by those who had, and still have, an eye on the chancellorship themselves. From Schröder to [Friedrich] Merz, they are still annoyed that they misjudged and miscalculated her abilities.
The concept of “durchregieren,”* which Ms. Merkel used at the time when she was still hoping to form a coalition with the FDP, still resonates and is being refuted every day. The CDU minister presidents have shown time and again – at times, at the expense of the chancellor – that they are looking after their own interests in the federal states and the party. In the early summer consultations on health-care reform, they made clear the limits of Ms. Merkel’s influence as chancellor and CDU party chair. Ms. Merkel had reached an agreement with the SPD leadership to finance the health-care system predominantly with tax revenue. The minister presidents formed a front – from [Edmund] Stoiber in Bavaria to [Roland] Koch in Hesse to [Jürgen] Rüttgers in North Rhine-Westphalia – that made both the plan and the agreement obsolete. In the end, the chancellor sought refuge by arguing that financing the health-care system through taxes – supposedly according to the SPD – would require 40 billion Euros. But that would necessitate additional tax increases. The plan was dropped. But for both sides – the minister presidents in the Union as well as the SPD leadership – the event was used, as needed, to prove the supposedly insufficient assertiveness of Ms. Merkel.
The event may also be characteristic of Ms. Merkel’s style of reasoning. Likewise, this hasn’t changed over the course of her chancellorship. She is able – as though she were not an active participant but an observer – to lay out various positions with their respective pros and cons, weighing the alternatives and also providing politically surprising moments. In the end, the opposition doesn’t know what is certain and doesn’t know what she wants. At times, she also presents herself as someone in search of an answer and as someone who doesn’t have a ready-made answer for every question. Sometimes she goes into such painstaking detail that people wonder where her thoughts will lead and whether the head of a government should be concerned with such details. People who deal with her on a daily basis often ask what Ms. Merkel actually has in mind.
* The meaning of the coined word durchregieren is disputed. However, there is agreement that Merkel’s use of the term refers to a style of governance that is direct, efficient, and effective, and that aims to assert policies quickly and without major opposition or the need for compromise – trans.