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Schröder and Bush: Political Brothers in Arms

What do the parallels between U.S. and German elections mean for the White House?

November 7, 2002

What do the parallels between U.S. and German elections mean for the White House?

President Bush — talking tough about "regime change" in Iraq — is credited with energizing enough Republican voters to overcome other concerns, such as the economy.

But why does this whole picture — of an incumbent’s incessant talk about war that ends up trumping all other issues — seem so familiar?

The answer is that we all saw it played out less than two months ago — in Gerhard Schröder's victory in the German elections.

Despite the still frigid relations between the countries — which only recently was described as “poisoned” — the similarities between the German and U.S. election campaigns are downright astonishing. And these parallels may indicate that — despite his victory — there may be trouble ahead for Bush.

In both elections, the opposition party — the Christian Democrats in Germany, and the Democrats in the United States — was expected to do well.

The presumed reason was straightforward: People would vote their pocketbooks. In both countries, the state of the economy should have made the electorate ripe for the opposition’s picking.

But in Germany, things didn't play out that way — despite a dismal economic picture marked by high unemployment, low growth, a tanking stock market and an embarrassingly high budget deficit.

Germany’s voters chose to stick with Mr. Schröder for four more years, partially because of his “principled” — or “highly unprincipled,” depending on your personal viewpoint — stand on invading Iraq.

Talk of war simply drowned out most other issues, providing a narrow margin of victory for the SPD/Green coalition.

Much the same developments as in Germany played out in the U.S. election campaign. And U.S. Democrats find themselves just as frustrated as Germany’s conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber.

Like Mr. Stoiber in Germany, the Democrats got into trouble because they echoed the incumbent, President Bush, on Iraq.

The lesson from Germany is clear: The incumbent’s advantage on the Iraq issue proved big enough to overcome the oppositions’ advantage on economic issues.

Germany’s Stoiber actually did much better than the U.S. Democrats on turning the economy into an election issue.

In the end, however, Mr. Stoiber lost what was considered a highly winnable election.

He failed by letting Mr. Schröder pick the ground on which they battled — and then never managed to match him.

In the United States, the Democrats were in a worse position. They were unable to create much traction with voters for several reasons: First, on key issues — tax cuts, corporate reforms and Iraq — the party had no single view or even a common agenda.

Unlike the Republicans under Newt Gingrich in 1994, the Democrats never managed to fuse their position to, say, 10 things they stand for in glaring contrast to the Bush White House.

In addition, they had gone along with the Republicans on issue after issue.

Why vote for a party that seems to have no clear positions, has little impact — and therefore is becoming indistinguishable from its opponents?

The uninspired performance by the Democrats suppressed their voter turnout sufficiently to lose the election for them — and to hand victory to the Republicans on a silver platter.

It is a great triumph for President Bush that the GOP was indeed able to sweep the Congressional elections. And it is even more potent because it can be viewed — in a way — to retroactively validate the disputed results of the 2000 elections.

But the President should beware of what he wishes for. By going all out to secure both the Senate and the House for his party, he could get himself into a dangerous position for his own reelection campaign in 2004.

With the Republicans reigning supreme in Washington, Mr. Bush has no Democrats in power he can blame for obstruction if things are not going well.

Also, given Americans’ preference for divided government, the GOP could set itself up for a major backlash in 2004.

Bill Clinton proved in 1996 just how beneficial it can be for one’s own election prospects to have a “healthy” opposition in the Congress.

And the Republicans, giddy with power after their 1994 “revolution,” provided plenty of ideology for Mr. Clinton to sharpen his profile against.

Given the amazing parallels between the German and U.S. elections, it is instructive to look at post-election Germany for any pointers on how things might go in the United States. Doing so shows that there may trouble lurking for an all-too-giddy White House.

The reason is that the governing coalition in Berlin is suffering from a major “morning after the election” hangover that just won't go away.

Faced with numerous fiscal crises — in the federal, state and local budgets, as well as in the health and pension systems — Mr. Schröder has to continue cutting spending.

Worse, he already had to renege on his election promise of not raising taxes and other levies.

Not surprisingly, his party's popularity is in a free fall. If the election were held today, instead of scoring 38.5%, the SPD would get up to five percentage points less — while the opposition conservatives would pick up at least six percentage points.

Hence, within a few weeks after the elections, voters are disillusioned — and wished they had made another choice. There is little reason to think that the going will get any easier for Schröder in the coming weeks and months.

Similar developments might well come to haunt President Bush and his fellow Republicans, who might find themselves with a ballooning budget deficit — and no “profligate spenders” (a.k.a. Democrats) to blame for it.

The White House might soon enough find itself as beleaguered as the Berlin Chancellery — with high expectations and little money to pay for all the goodies, such as tax cuts.