Features

It's the economy, dummkopf!

International | Clintonism gets another franchise in Europe: After 16 years of Kohl, Germany's new leader forms a new government with old communists and wild-card Greens

Issue: "Who's marching now?," Oct. 17, 1998

in Berlin - Ruben Schroeder gunned his Opal turbo-diesel and eased by a Porsche on the Berlin autobahn on Sunday, Sept. 27, racing toward the polls. The 30-year-old engineering student was determined to cast his ballot, even though he admitted as he exited the German superhighway that he was still a little unsure of how he would vote. "No, I am decided," said this small bear of a Berliner. "I will vote for the SPD," the Social Democratic Party. He broke off the political discussion to point out, with a touch of pride, the massive construction site known as Potsdammerplatz-the former hole in the ground that is now Europe's largest building project (this summer the one-millionth cubic yard of concrete was poured with great pomp). It is shaping up into a horrifying cacophony of modern architecture, angular and sharp. The only theme to the dozen or so buildings is a complete rejection of the past. And that's a definition that could be applied to the SPD, the party that won the Sept. 27 election and ended the 16-year administration of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Gerhard Schroeder, chancellor-elect, became a powerful addition to the ranks of Europe's "Third Way" leaders, theoretically charting a course to the right of the Left and to the left of the Right. But other than those very vague directions, little is known about what, exactly, the 54-year-old leader stands for or even what he plans to do. "Yes, I guess that's so," said Ruben Schroeder (no relation to Gerhard). "I think the SPD have less of a picture of themselves. What will they do? I don't know, and maybe they don't know. But Germany needs a change. I hope for good change." Mr. Schroeder, an unremarkable provincial governor, enters office with 41 percent of the popular vote. His similarities to Bill Clinton only begin there. In his younger days, he was a self-described long-haired leftist, who protested the Vietnam War. He came from a lower-middle-class background and never knew his father, who was killed during World War II, when Gerhard was a few days old. Gerhard left school at 14 to help his mother. He stayed in night school and eventually became a lawyer. Then he became more and more attracted to politics, first as a leader of the Young Socialists, then as a Marxist member of parliament. Over the years, Mr. Schroeder drifted from leftist orthodoxy. He cut his hair and forged ties to the business community. He became premier of his region, Lower Saxony, and an avid reader of Bill Clinton's playbook: It's the economy, dummkopf! "If you look at the differences between the political parties as to foreign policy, I think the differences are minimal," Mr. Schroeder said repeatedly during the campaign. But unemployment was the real issue-11 percent overall (that's higher than any time since Adolf Hitler took power) and up to 30 percent in some areas of the former East Germany. And unemployment, the chancellor-elect declared, "should be the measure of a government." Mr. Schroeder's "personal" life has been a mess. He has been married four times and divorced three. Still, that doesn't bother Ruben Schroeder, the Berlin engineering student. "I am a Christian, so I don't like his personal problems," he said. "But that's not an issue here, like it is in the United States. I don't know that Kohl is any more moral than Schroeder. But that is not something Germans are worried about. We worry about jobs." The job issue is as near to specifics as this race ever really got. By American standards, it was a true yawner of a campaign. Mr. Schroeder stuck to simplistic messages, emphasizing change. "Germany needs new power," "Germany needs new ideas," "Germany needs a new chancellor!" The 68-year-old Mr. Kohl, who in the past has been an extremely strong campaigner, made a half-hearted effort reminiscent of President George Bush in 1992. His ads featured frowning old men and warnings about the risk that accompanies change. "Security instead of risk," declared his most-used slogan. His most obscure was, "World class for Germany," which was supposed to emphasize his experience; instead, it usually just sparked talk about soccer. Try as he might, Mr. Kohl was simply unable to pin down his opponent. His lionesque debate skills were useless against his Clintonesque opponent. He also found himself on the defensive over tax hikes and pension cuts. Although he advocated free markets and limited government, the German government actually grew significantly under his leadership. In an even eerier parallel, late in the campaign Mr. Kohl proposed a Dole-like tax cut. Either it wasn't enough, or Mr. Kohl's 16-year reign was simply too much. Mr. Kohl in the end may have been undone by his own pet project, bringing 11 European Union countries together under one monetary policy. Set to take effect Jan. 1, the monetary union requires unpopular austerity measures that have made it difficult to maintain accustomed welfare and pension benefits. So what about jobs? How will Mr. Schroeder make good on his promise to cut unemployment? If Mr. Schroeder himself knows, he doesn't seem to be telling: "We will sort things out in practice. I want to encourage people to speak their minds so I can get the broadest possible range of advice. At the proper time, we will decide what is the right policy mix to apply when we form the next government." And it's no help listening to his likely cabinet ministers. Computer entrepreneur Jost Stollman, in line to be the new minister of economics, has said he wants to curtail the welfare state. Oskar Lafontaine, the pick for minister of finance (a separate but overlapping post) and an old-time Social Democratic leader, wants to increase jobs by both shortening the work week and increasing wages substantially. Business leaders aren't reassured by Mr. Schroeder's choice of friends. The SPD failed to win enough votes to seat a government by itself. Forgoing a "grand coalition" with Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, he took the "Red-Green" route: a coalition with the Green Party and the Party for a Social Democracy, the party of barely reformed communists. Throughout the campaign he had tried to distance himself from some of the extreme positions of the Green Party. Now they will play a wild-card role in his cabinet: Greens want to raise gasoline prices in Germany to $11 per gallon, and some Greens oppose NATO. What Germans and outside observers can be sure of is that Mr. Schroeder is a committed Third Wayer-whatever that means. "I am neither right nor left," he said during the campaign. "I'm a human being. The old ideologies have been overtaken by the forces of history. I'm only interested in what works on the ground. It's what I like to call total vision."

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