The sheer nastiness of Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton TV debates and the deft verbal fencing of French presidential candidates are still fresh in watchers’ memory. No wonder many were disappointed by Sunday’s “TV duel” between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz, which Merkel won, according to polls. To many, the tame debate looked more like a public round of coalition negotiations rather than a duel.
The German press ought to hold the criticism. It’s a gift from heaven to Germany that its leading politicians — both centrists with massive popular support — smile at each other’s little jokes and nod in apparent agreement when the other speaks. It’s a major achievement that not even four moderators can prod Merkel and Schulz into anything resembling an altercation; Germany has it better than almost all the rest of the Western world.
In the U.S., political divisions are, if anything, sharper than before Donald Trump won the election last year. Pundits are still struggling to understand what Trump’s victory and his presidency are about, which might explain the continued moaning about foreign interference. In the Netherlands, no government has been formed yet based on the outcome of the general election held in March. Though the anti-immigrant, populist party of Geert Wilders failed to win it, the coalition talks are the longest in 40 years because the country and the political establishment are divided as they have rarely been before. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity has slid sharply because his election victory was the result of tactical voting against the extremes (and the traditional parties) rather than genuine support for his agenda. In the U.K., the political storm that followed Brexit shows no signs of subsiding; while top political leaders — Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — send far more sparks flying than Merkel and Schulz when they interact, that’s hardly a relief to voters who have strong misgivings about both.
Germans don’t want any of that in their country. So they have Schulz and Merkel, who might both end up in government despite their parties’ coalition fatigue after ruling jointly for the last four years. Three weeks before the election, other potential coalition structures, involving smaller parties, look at least as difficult to put together.
Analysts tried to do their job in the aftermath of the debate, describing Schulz’s mild criticism of Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis and support for the scandal-ridden auto industry as “offensives” and picking up the Social Democrat’s anger at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a sign that his foreign policy would be more muscular than Merkel’s. But the difference between the two politicians was mere that Merkel, as the incumbent, had less freedom to speak carelessly. Post-debate polls gave her an advantage in credibility and persuasiveness, so viewers clearly understood while she was a bit milder than Schulz.
There the two stood, calmly discussing processing times for asylum application (which Schulz claims are too long), retirement age (Schulz: your party wants to raise it to 70; Merkel: I’m fine with 67, actually), the toll-free status of the autobahns (both like it), Turkey (both deplore Erdogan’s attacks on human rights), money for the lower middle class (both are willing to promise a little more) and the car industry (it’s a matter of fine balance between the interests of workers, the German economy, and consumers). Neither wanted to construct a wall on Germany’s borders, curtail immigration, hold a referendum on European Union membership, fight a war anywhere, dismantle any part of Germany’s formidable social safety net or build it up much further. Neither was interested in Ukraine or North Korea, and Russia only came up once when both candidates condemned former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s decision to join the board of directors of Rosneft, the Russian state oil company.
Though some expect Germany to start taking on a greater role internationally now that U.S. leadership is in question, the German election agenda is, as ever, domestically focused. Turkey, for example, is only important to it because of the country’s large Turkish diaspora and Turkey’s EU accession talks. In a country blessed with record-breaking economic prosperity, a fiscal surplus, no credible external threats and a highly competent “deep state” that has quickly learned to cope — by and large — with a record influx of immigrants, it’s inevitably a rather tame domestic agenda. If voters wanted anything flashier or more radical, you would think they would give the far left and far right parties, Die Linke and Alternative for Germany, more than their current combined 15 to 20 percent support, less than Schulz’s second-place Social Democrats get.
As Merkel put it in her final remarks, the biggest challenge is ensuring Germany is as prosperous in 10 years. The country is not immune from technological disruption, and Germany’s allies and neighbors are far from as stable politically, threatening it with contagion. But dealing with this doesn’t seem to require much assertiveness — rather, it’s a matter of calm, careful attention to detail. Merkel won the debate by projecting just that quality — that is, simply by being herself. If you vote in any other country, you should be jealous.