The Man Who Would Have Been Chancellor

If not for his late and somewhat befuddled response to catastrophic floods in eastern Germany back in August 2002, Edmund Stoiber might well have been Chancellor today. The floods and some convenient anti-Americanism tipped the scales for Gerhard Schroeder, leading to his replacement by Angela Merkel. Yesterday, Stoiber announced that he would step down as Bavaria’s premier and as head of the CSU at the party’s conference in September.

He has been the head of the Bavarian government since before Bill Clinton was elected President. During that period, the state has completed its transformation from a backward, agricultural region to one of Germany’s most economically advanced and dynamic regions, while still retaining cultural aspects that some find charming and others anything from ridiculous to retrograde. Whether he’s replaced by Beckstein (who’s better in person than his public proclamations, more’s the pity), Huber (who knows what to do with the money) or Seehofer (whom I have managed to miss in almost a decade here), it’s the end of an era.

Stoiber had an opportunity to go to Berlin after the 2005 elections, to be a “super” minister with enormous economic responsibilities. But he never seemed at home up there, and he certainly didn’t seem inclined to play second fiddle. His refusal to take up a post in the national coalition set the stage for his departure. The withdrawal itself was handled clumsily, and people in the state who expected to move up were stymied.

This departure, too, has been odd. Dissatisfaction with Stoiber took on concrete form a few weeks ago when he was accused of trying to dig up dirt on a regional official. Then it essentially snowballed in both party and press. The snooping itself strikes me as a convenient excuse that covers a simple fact: fourteen years atop a party is a very long time, one that starts to look like renewal is being blocked for the sake of one person. Even the CSU has to change with time, and that is what finally did Stoiber in.