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The Unlikely Vice Chancellor

4:00 PM, Jun 18, 2012 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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If, for some reason, Angela Merkel were unable to carry out her duties as chancellor, the next in line to govern Europe's most powerful nation would be a 39-year-old Vietnamese named Philipp Rösler. It's doubtful many Americans know this. Rösler was an infant in a Vietnamese orphanage when a German couple adopted him. He was raised in northern Germany and became a physician in the army. He became Germany's health minister, then moved on to the economics and technology ministry. By the age of 38, he was chairman of the Free Democratic Party and vice chancellor. In this country, he'd be an ideal GOP candidate—a young and dynamic fiscal conservative and a Catholic with a compelling story. In Germany, however, he is less idealized.

At a lunch today sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (the nonprofit arm of the FDP), Rösler said he was encouraged by the results of the Greek election, noting that "the new government must now carry out those [structural] reforms." Rösler also noted that in contrast to Greece and "other countries," borrowing and increasing debt in order to promote growth is no way to go forward. Reform and budget consolidation are essential because what we are seeing is a "crisis of confidence." Germany went through this a decade ago (under Gerhardt Schröder's Agenda 2010), he reminded us, and it wasn't pretty. The country weathered a series of tumultuous protest rallies—a time of economic sacrifice referred to as "the cruelties."

On the other hand (and what doesn't make him the most ideal GOP candidate), Rösler also discussed the importance of renewable energy and his concern that a discovery of a large supply of shale oil in North America might discourage U.S. investment in renewables. (At which point I turned to a Republican strategist at my table who laughed to himself and shook his head.) As minister of economics and technology, Rösler must also defend his government's decision to phase out nuclear energy in roughly ten years' time, relying on alternative, nonfossil solutions (and in all likelihood either more natural gas from Russia or nuclear energy from France).

I asked the vice chancellor how he plans to shore up the FDP's electoral prospects ahead of federal elections next year. Rösler noted his party's success in 2009 was unprecedented and expectations were high. "We did not meet those expectations," he candidly admitted, acknowledging support for the FDP plummeted to 2 to 3 percent, below the 5 percent minimum for entry into the Bundestag. But recent state elections have shown an uptick in support, now above that 5 percent threshold. Rösler was encouraged that "people are now listening to us" and his party must take advantage of this moment and talk about viable solutions to the EU fiscal and energy crises. (He didn't mention the FDP's belief in tax cuts, which were not championed by Merkel.)

Rösler's résumé is impressive but, as one German told me over lunch, "in Germany, we are less interested in personal stories and more about a politician's program and how it can help us." Others have cited a lack of experience in the youthful Rösler as a reason for concern. Both problems are fixable between now and the fall 2013 elections. "There are a lot of problems out there that need to be addressed," said the vice chancellor. And there's no time to waste.

Not that Germans are ever known for wasting time.

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