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Notes from a Berlin Rally

2:38 PM, Sep 26, 2009 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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It's strange to be sitting here in the middle of Pariser Platz, directly in front of the Brandenburg Gate, awaiting the arrival of the chancellor candidate of the Social Democratic Party, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to take the stage. Thousands have gathered to support a party in danger of getting a mere 24 or 25 percent of the vote this Sunday. But as my fellow traveler Mike Shields of the NRCC noted, you can count the smiling faces on one hand. The rest are looking tense, grim, pensive. The posters they carry include such zingers as "Angie Got OutMerkeled!" "Bankers Would Vote For Merkel," and "Asses Would Vote For Merkel." But the opening bands are quite lively-in that German way. A cover band called Jazz Cantina, which takes rock songs and mellows them out with a jazz beat, is currently doing their rendition of Van Halen's "Jump." "You might as well jump," says the singer, then does a quick hop. They follow this with a swingy version of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell." But is "Highway to Hell" really a song that should precede the introduction of one's candidates?

Of course not. Which is why, when Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, Vice Chancellor/Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and SPD chairman Franz Müntefering are introduced, the song you hear is "Beautiful Day" by U2-the same song used by John Kerry in 2004 and occasionally by Barack Obama last year. And speaking of President Obama, you can hear shades of his rhetoric when Mayor Wowereit (a future SPD chancellor candidate) utters things like, "this is not a question of ideology," and "this is not a question of right or left…." But still there was this air of desperation. All that was missing, as Mr. Shields pointed out, was the speech recalling the great comebacks of the past, where people counted us out, but overnight we showed them!

So why does anyone like Mr. Steinmeier? On the jumbotron famous German actors and other personalities made the case. The montage was a German Cannonball Run. (I recognized Norm Birnbaum and the actor who played Josef Goebbels in Downfall.) Then there was the member of Jazz Cantina who told the crowd he supports Steinmeier "because Steinmeier has real balls!" (He used the word Eier, meaning eggs, but you get the picture.) Then Steinmeier comes out and addresses the audience in a constant yell that after a while, say five minutes, becomes fairly numbing. He went on for at least 45 minutes this way. And he raged against the threat of a CDU/FDP government, the threat of lowering taxes, and even the threat of the radical right party (NPD). He finally pleaded, "Wir brauchen Sie!" (We need you!). Steinmeier was then followed by Chairman Müntefering (sort of like having Tim Kaine follow Obama), who delivered even more red meat, but strangely only mentioned the far left party in passing. In fact, Die Linke poses the greatest threat to them and may end up with more than 11 percent of the vote-votes that the SPD believes are rightfully theirs. And those Linke supporters were also present, heckling throughout.

The rally finally ended with Müntefering reminding voters that following the first Grand Coalition government some 40 years ago, Willy Brandt of the SPD was supposed to earn a mere 15 percent of the vote. But sure enough, he came through, and in 48 hours the same can happen here! Yes, they told the comeback story.