CDU: Screwing up on purpose?

Ok, now that Edward has already mentioned it, I might as well explain in a little more detail what I meant by saying that “on some level, the CDU might be afraid to win.”

Last Saturday evening, strolling through Stockholm’s Gamla Stan, Edward asked me about my gut feeling concerning the outcome of the German election next week. I told him that, while it was rather entertaining, this campaign has also been confusing – and confused – in many ways, particularly when looking at the CDU. And I believe the confused and confusing campaign the CDU is conducting is even more an expression of the way the German establishment is puzzled about the way ahead than the fact that Schröder “called” the elections a year too early, too early for any of his reforms to have any perceptible impact on the economy, not even in the West.

While his decision, as former CDU “whip” (Fraktionsvorsitzender) and President of the Bundestag Rainer Barzel stated immediately after the announcement, may have been a patriotic act – given the internal state of the Social Democratic Party, their apparent unwillingness to govern when governing doesn’t entail being able to control “the market”, as well as Germany’s institutional “joint-decision-trap”, and the CDU’s super-majority in the upper federal chamber, the Bundesrat that will make a CDU chancellor more powerful with respect to the state premiers even of her own party than has been the case in a long time – it also means that there are no more instutional excuses for a chancellor presiding over a CDU-FDP coalition from next Sunday on. A Chancellor Merkel, once elected by the Bundestag, would indeed be much more bound to do what she promised than most politicians like.

That, on the other hand, made many within her party realise that calls for radical reforms are no longer simply opposition politics. They may actually get what they called for, and many suddenly realised that they were – to put it this way – apprehensive about what exactly they would do to the country by doing what they said they wanted all along.

Citing Ronald Reagan is one thing when there are no institutional consequences, it is something entirely different in a campaign that has, despite being fought almost entirely on economic issues, brought back the notion that there is more to the German economic future than the internalisation of social externalities. It is one thing to believe that radical labour market reforms will right many of the wrong incentives, that the gains from ridding an obscure tax code from transaction costs will create a more just tax system, and to actually be faced with the prospect of having to do so. The CDU realizes right now, governance matters, the state matters.

Certainly, Schroeder and the SPD’s campaign have been quick to spin the images from New Orleans and the CDU’s internal debate about a “flat tax” (that is not really a flat tax) that was brought into the debate by Merkel’s nomination of Paul Kirchhof, a professor and former constitutional judge, who has pursued tax reform as a pet project for years.

Of course, the fact that she brought someone like him into her “shadow cabinet” is indicative of what she believes will be important to succeed after the election. While she’s the leader of the party and certainly in a stronger position than she has ever been in since she took over following the campaign financing scandal of 1999, it is hardly a secret that her base within the party is not as strong as would be useful. It’s not her fault – hailing from the East she never had the opportunity to build the kind of network some of the West German state premiers have been able to build over decades. Her power will certainly be much more dependent on public support for her reformist drive. Thus, having a complete outsider like Kirchhoff, someone without an internal power-base yet with strong convictions, run the most important ministry is clearly making a lot of sense from Merkel’s point of view.

Merkel’s intuition is probably right in “the long run” – as, for example, a very interesting recent paper by the always very readable Wolfgang Streeck of the Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Societies about new elite discourses and perceptions in Germany indicate. Yet it’s a risky game and it appears to be one that might still blow up in her face. Last year, there was a movie called “How to get rid of a guy in ten days” – this year’s CDU campaign is a collection of amateur mistakes that is reminiscent of a potential screenplay for the film “how to lose a non-surplus-coalition majority within two weeks.”

It’s not that the CDU is not attempting to win in the sense that they do not want to govern. They do. But I think many of them, certainly within the league of state premiers would be relieved with the prospect of a “grand coalition”. One without Kirchhof, with more labour market reforms, but a less radical model of tax reform, and a new, less bureaucratic, model of health reform designed to include non-wage income into the public health redistribution system.

In some sense, in her political need to be more reformist than the rest, Merkel may have been forced to outrun the CDU’s rank and file, whose conservative instincts may have been reactivated at the “wrong moment”, offering her internal – not just the external – opposition an opportunity to attack her.

That’s why I think the CDU’s campaign is as bad, confusing and confused as it is. And I’m not even talking about their posters…

8 thoughts on “CDU: Screwing up on purpose?

  1. To say nothing of state premiers who fancy themselves chancellor rather than minister, or even minister-president. Koch had been all but anointed next chancellor by the FAZ, and seeing him wrong-footed by Schroeder and left in the dust by Merkel has been one of the unadulterated delights of this campaign. I think he would have been unsufferable as chancellor.

    He’s not the only one who thought he could do to Merkel in 2006 what Stoiber did to her in 2002, and I am pleased as punch that they did not have the opportunity.

    My personal amusement aside, there’s probably more than one state premier who’s willing to be in opposition a few more years in order to have a shot at the top chair.

  2. Well, that would hardly be a surprise, seeing that he’s insufferable as minister-president.

    I dislike Koch intensely, and not only because of my ingrained aversion to the Union. He has utterly failed to better the schools (in Germany, the responsibility of the Land) although complaining about their wretched state was (like xenophobia) a big part of his campaign. But he has done nothing to improve matters beyond some intelligence-insulting eyewash. The schools have no money. My son’s Gymnasium has eliminated biology this year (!) because there is nobody to teach it. Class sizes are swelling into the hundreds; more lessons are cancelled than given, and the boy spends abut an hour and a half per week in school. (Oh all right, I am exaggerating; but not by very much.) And his is one of the best schools in the city!

    Germany had extremely good state schools at one time. Now, I dislike the idea of fees-paying schools. For one thing, they ask one to pay fees. For another, though, providing high-quality universal education is, to my way of thinking, one of the things the state should do; and if the middle classes abandon the state system it is finished. But as things are, the temptation to go the private route is strong. Too strong for lots of parents to resist lately, in fact. The posher private schools round here long had the reputation of being for dim rich kids who wouldn’t get through the Abi without massive intervention. “Kommst du nicht richtig mit/geh zu Anna Schmidt”, as traditional local doggerel mocked one of these schools. No longer, I’m afraid. These days you can’t get a place for love or money.

    Koch is very clever, though, and he must be a true master of political infighting. He can’t have got where he is today on charisma. Not only does he come across as unpleasant, he is also physically unattractive to the point of being repulsive. That he has shinnied as far up the greasy pole as he has suggests he has a first-class brain, and a skilful hand with the shiv.

  3. It’s hard to generalize about the private school system in Germany. There’s always been a difference between private schools with special educational approaches, private denominational schools (which tended to be the best in many “school districts”) and free in most cases, and those where you could get the best Abi daddy could buy. I went to school with some people who later decided that it was a better alternative to go to a private school in Hessen in search of a better Abi (that daddy would buy). That, of course, was well before Koch. The Red-Green coalition was a disaster for the educational situation in Hessen as well – even the left-left-wing members of the state pupil’s representation (Landesschülervertretung) made fun of the Hessians… That’s not to say that there aren’t some good schools around. Including a Koch pet project. Although I don’t like the concept, I recently talked to a friend of a friend, who went to my Gymnasium and now teaches at the Schloss Hansenberg Gymnasium – allegedly Germany’s most prestigious school…
    He liked teaching there, but he was also aware that it would be a rather problematic approach to educational policy to have more of these “public private partnerships”.

  4. Now if we could only find someone to pay for our debates about the German education system, we’d be set for life! University reform would be a good one, too.

    That’s been a bone of contention since I was a student at a German university, and those were the days when a French president could still love Germany so much he was glad there were two of them.

    Seriously, though, is there any combination of parties that promises significant movement on reforms everybody knows are needed?

  5. Oh, I have no illusions about the current oppo doing things better when they ran the place. It’s just that Koch, who used the wretched state of Hessian schools so effectively (and justifiably) as a cudgel against them, has done SFA to make things better, yet will tell you he has worked wonders.

    And yes, Schloss Hansenberg is excellent, but creaming off a handful of the very top pupils from the regular state schools and packing them off to a subsidised Internat doesn’t really solve Hessia’s schools problem, does it? (Perhaps we could call it Schloss Hansaplast.) Don’t get me wrong; I think the school a great idea. But I’d think getting the run of Hessia’s state schools whipped into shape an even better idea. (The Direktor of my son’s Gymnasium *hates* Hansenberg, BTW. Not for itself, but because the Ministry makes him seek out potential transferees. He doesn’t want his best kids going to the Schloss, he wants them where they are. He has many of the classical faults of the German teacher, but he is passionate about the quality of his school and its pupils, and a dab hand at gaming the Hessian system for their benefit. There are limits to what he can do, though.)

    You’re right that there is variation in Germany’s private schools. When I mock them, it is of course the Abi-buying kind I am thinking of, not the Waldorf schools or the denominational schools or the occasional “classical” private school like Salem that is simply very good. The thing is, though, that private schools (of whatever kind) play a very significantly smaller role in Germany than in the English-speaking countries I’m familiar with. It seems to me that children from the sort of families that, in Anglophonia, often use private schools are, in Germany, *much* likelier to attend an ordinary state Gymnasium. And that’s a very good sign; that this commitment to the state schools seems to be breaking down a bit is a bad sign.

  6. Mrs T.,

    I fully agree with you. I’m sure Hansenberg *can be* great for some pupils, yet I’m very sceptic about what that kind of thing means for society, not just because the better pupils might leave. Homogenity in the classroom will always be a problematic issue, whether or not we subscribe to a social concept which tends to look to the top and doesn’t realise that hollowing out the middle is a horrible thing to do to any society, and a conservative should be able to understand that more than others.


    I’m not sure that French presidents would not subscribe to that anymore ;). They’ve inherited that attitude from their royal predecessors…

    As for reforms… no reforms can achieve (at least not by institutional design, not even *intelligent design* ;)), what is needed most in my opinion – Germans becoming more relaxed about politics and their approach to life itself. We need to once again learn to live with a higher degree of uncertainty – and even learn to appreciate it.

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