Angela Merkel's Boring Brilliance

AP Images/Markus Schreiber

Few European politicians have survived the financial crisis of 2008 unscathed, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proved to be an extraordinary politician. While most of her counterparts across Europe have been swept away amidst the turmoil that has resulted from the euro crisis, Merkel keeps getting stronger. She just won her third general election, and this time, she brought her party within a hair of an absolute majority, something that hasn’t happened to the conservative Christian Democrats since 1957. She’s the first female chancellor in German history, and at the height of her power, which means her tried and true policy of slow, almost glacial change will continue.

How boring. And how utterly genius. Not since Bismarck has a German politician managed to parry a dizzying array of domestic and international forces into a manageable agenda as well as she has. Known to friend and foe alike as “Mutti” (“mommy” in German), Merkel is not only the unquestioned queen of German politics, but also the proverbial everywoman, whose quiet discipline Germans have come to trust above all else. Forget about Hillary Clinton or Dilma Rouseff of Brazil, Merkel is the most powerful female politician of her generation.

Ms. Merkel was uncharacteristically emotional on Sunday as she clapped along to a German rock song and celebrated with her campaign staff. She had run an efficient, pitch-perfect campaign that sought to highlight the successes of the German economy in an age of instability. She managed to avoid all responsibility for cooperating with the National Security Agency after the revelations by Edward Snowden had set the German public aflame with anger. Known for her perpetually dour visage, and Mr. Burns-like pressed fingers, she seemed transformed for a brief moment as she strode out to the front of the stage with a beaming smile and shouted, “Tonight we have reason to party. What an awesome result!”  

It was an extraordinary personal victory for Merkel and her handling of the euro crisis and the national economy over the last four years. German voters have largely agreed with her cautious course of supporting financial bailouts in exchange for fiscal austerity in poorer European countries. Critics abroad have seen this strategy as vacillation, which has staved off the collapse of the common currency but made the crisis worse in the long run. Others see this as the only viable option in a European Union of individual nations that must be responsive to domestic political support for any long-term policy, especially when German taxpayers are footing most of the bill. Merkel seems to be winning the argument, remaining steadfast in support of the common European project, but skeptical of giving too much power, too fast to European institutions. Mutti regelt das schon. (“Mommy will take care of everything.”) That’s what a lot of Germans are saying, from the halls of government to the streets of Berlin.

The mommy moniker is, in some ways, key to understanding Merkel’s gradual rise as well as her style of governing. After a slush-fund scandal forced most of the heavyweights in the Christian Democratic party to resign in 1999, she was put in charge as a stopgap solution. Many of the party elite at the time saw her as a den mother of sorts, a shrewd, patient, and tactful manager, who could keep the alpha males from bickering too much until a leading candidate could be found. But after the male frontrunner fizzled in 2002, Merkel ended up taking the prize for herself in 2005. With a PhD in quantum chemistry, Merkel relishes gaming out all of the angles, treading carefully, and waiting for rivals to destroy themselves.

There’s an obvious sexist dimension to all this Freudian mother talk. Casual sexism is still prevalent in German society. It may seem a little surprising that, in a country where only two percent of corporate boardrooms have women among their ranks, Merkel has thrived. But German society is changing. Another female politician, Minister of Labor Ursula von der Leyen (a medical doctor with seven children—feel like a slouch yet?), is often traded as her only possible successor. And half of Merkel’s 12 cabinet members are women to boot. That’s really not the patriarchy of the Germany’s Cold War past, when women, for example, had to get permission from their husbands to legally work outside the home.

Challenges remain, not least of which is finding a suitable political partner. Her victory came at the cost of her junior coalition partner, the business-friendly Liberal Democrats, who were voted out of parliament for the first time since the republic was founded back in 1949. As predicted, she will now have to build a grand coalition with either the center-left Social Democrats, or the Greens, who are even more to the left. The Social Democrats still remember the pain of the first grand coalition with Merkel from 2005 to 2009, when their move to the center was punished by an exodus of supporters to other leftist parties. The Greens worry about a similar loss of voters to the fringes, but the party’s environmental focus is more amenable to Merkel’s own policy of investing heavily in renewable energy than many Green party members would like to admit. Either way, Merkel’s tried and true tactic of weakening her partners by drawing them close and sucking the political air out of the room by either ignoring them or repackaging their ideas as her own appears destined to continue for another term.

Politically she moves at a snail’s pace, but always aims for the center, gradually nudging her conservative party considerably leftward on the domestic front, refusing to lower taxes and keeping generous social services in place, and remains open to a more moderate position on social issues like gay marriage. On the European stage, Merkel’s waiting game has been fraught with greater risks, but so far, her calculations have kept the euro from blowing up. She remains practically the sole arbiter over the fate of Europe. No sudden moves, no grand gestures, just nail-biting and a lot of plodding through murky, backroom deals with other European leaders. For the German tabloid press, she’s the Eiserne Mutti (“the iron mommy”) that the debt-ridden southern Europeans fear and cost-conscious northern Europeans love, staying the course come what may.

However, for many observers, Merkel’s steady hand is part of Europe’s problem and the very reason why Merkel is the center of attention; half measures and inaction have drawn out the euro crisis longer than it should have. Just as austerity has slowed down the American economy under a Republican-controlled house, Germany has precluded any recovery in the southern European countries like Greece, Portugal, or Spain by Germany’s insistence that the public sector save rather than expand, which has led to record high unemployment.  Merkel’s decisions move markets precisely because she and her government haven’t found a sustainable solution to the problems of the euro other than crisis management.

Perhaps there’s no other way. It is clear that Merkel’s star is far from waning. By the end of her third term, Merkel’s tenure will eclipse that of another iron mommy, Margaret Thatcher, whose historical significance Merkel will likely match.  But please wake me up when we get there. It’s bound to be a boring ride.

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