The most valuable thing a politician has is gravitas. Even a politician with a sense of humor cannot afford to look like a clown. It was partly because he forgot this that Peer Steinbrück, lead candidate of the German Social Democrats (SPD), suffered such a drubbing last week at the hands of the Christian Democrat (CDU) chancellor Angela Merkel. The SPD is not the country’s elite party, like the French Socialists or U.S. Democrats, but it is the main repository of hope on the center-left. Much of the media roots for it desperately. After a televised debate in early September in which Merkel and Steinbrück exchanged platitudes, devoting all of three minutes to the unfolding crisis in Syria, polls showed Steinbrück lagging 15 points behind, just as they had before the debate, and just as they would on election day.
Yet the papers were suddenly full of stories about how Steinbrück had “found his voice” and “turned a corner” and Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung arranged a magazine photo shoot to appear on the last weekend before the elections. Steinbrück was asked how he would respond to getting called “Peer-lusconi,” after the scandal-plagued former Italian prime minister. At this he made an obscene hand motion—der Stinkefinger, as it is called in German, although it is a gesture that knows no national borders and will be familiar to any American who has ever driven in traffic. It became the Steinbrück campaign’s symbol, practically its campaign poster.
Merkel’s reelection is among the most spectacular victories in German postwar history. In a country that hands out majorities sparingly, she came within a whisker of one, taking 311 of 630 parliamentary seats. That was her reward for an astonishing economic turnaround. Germany has won vast new export markets, particularly in Asia, at a time when the rest of Europe is undergoing a depression in all but name. In the past eight years, German unemployment has fallen from 5.2 million people to 2.9 million. Merkel will now form a coalition with either the Green party (itself a coalition of environmentalists and limousine liberals) or Steinbrück’s socialists (minus Steinbrück himself, who said he wanted no part in any such “grand coalition”).
Much of the credit goes to Merkel’s predecessor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, who passed welfare reforms in 2003 and 2004 that stripped an overgenerous state to the bone and made German labor costs competitive. But it is Merkel who has steered Germany through the world economic crisis since 2008, and through the crisis of the European currency, the euro, which started in 2010. She has staved off demands from other governments that German taxpayers fork over the money to keep their mismanaged welfare states solvent. These demands have often been cleverly disguised—unsurprisingly, since many of them originate in France. Sometimes France and its allies ask Germany for the pooling of liability through a so-called eurobond. Sometimes what they want is a common deposit insurance that would be called “banking union.” In all cases, the goal is to convince Germany to put its own assets at other countries’ disposal. When appeals to neighborly solidarity have not sufficed, moral blackmail has been used. Placards carried through the streets of Athens, showing Merkel with a Hitler mustache, are a way of saying that Germany’s standing as a civilized country is one that its European partners have the prerogative to revoke. Merkel, a mild-mannered provincial physicist, has the accidental virtue of not fitting into this narrative as a plausible villain. Mister Stinkefinger might have been different.