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The Balance Sheet of the Grand Coalition (September 17, 2009)

The author of this piece analyzes the work of the Grand Coalition in retrospect. He describes its reforms, praises its handling of the global financial crisis of 2008, and concludes that ending the culture wars in the social policy arena was one of its greatest accomplishments.

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How it Was

Fewer unemployed, solid crisis management, stronger families – the balance sheet of the Grand Coalition is impressive.

To understand all the Grand Coalition has achieved, we need only recall the year 2005. At the time, Germany was wondering whether its best years were behind it; its political parties were staging an election that they presented as crucial for the fate of the country, and the federal president was serving as an ambassador of doom. Looking back now, this is a Germany that seems like a foreign country. Four years later, Germans have not even been panicked by an unprecedented economic collapse, exorbitant national debt, or the prospect of mass layoffs.

The Grand Coalition’s psychological crisis management apparently worked well. This is surprising, since the psychological preconditions of the alliance were anything but promising. Never before in the history of the Federal Republic had there been a coalition that came into being against the wishes of its partners. Even the first alliance between the CDU/CSU and the SPD in 1966 was established voluntarily, in response to the very first indications of the fading of the Economic Miracle. Otherwise, the CDU/CSU and the SPD have always regarded each other as political opponents. Their disputes shaped the political conflicts of the Federal Republic but less so their resolution. And now the two opponents were suddenly supposed to work together creatively. [ . . . ]

The argument that a Grand Coalition can be useful in solving “grand” problems was merely an attempt to turn mutual aversion into an ethics of responsibility. Such inflated claims were immediately repudiated, but the partners secretly hoped that the mandatory alliance would ultimately be good for a few surprises. The newly appointed chancellor referred to the antagonistic entity over which she presided as “the coalition of new possibilities” or, more modestly, as “the coalition of small steps.”

A history of the Grand Coalition could easily be written as a history of its conflicts. The background din of quarreling and insinuations droned on throughout the legislative period. Healthcare, layoff protection, unemployment benefits, the Anti-Discrimination Act, the minimum wage, the domestic deployment of the Bundeswehr, counterterrorism – the list of disputes in which factual disagreement was combined with longstanding reservations is almost endless. Now that the Grand Coalition is facing elections and its possible end, it is curious that it is constantly being reprimanded for concord and insufficient debate. But what is even more surprising is that a partnership marked by such strife was able to accomplish so much in the end.

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