She likes pantsuits, suffers public attention to her coif, and shows telling signs of age with unflattering puffs under her eyes. But Angela Merkel is no Hillary Rodham Clinton. As a world leader, she’s channeling Margaret Thatcher, not Eleanor Roosevelt. This lady is famously “not for turning.”
The chancellor of Germany, just elected for a third time in a landslide, is appreciated for her austerity in the European Union. Her countrymen call her “Mutti,” or “Mother,” with affection but with a certain formality, recognizing that she’s hanging tough because she thinks tough love is good for you. She makes the less-thrifty European countries fear her sustained pocketbook power.
Some European political cartoonists draw her with a Hitler mustache or a Bismarck helmet, but the iron lady of Germany is obviously popular in her own country. She was re-elected by a margin of more than 7 percentage points above her prior re-election in 2009. Heads of other eurozone countries, including France, Italy and Spain, were not re-elected after the recession rattled their treasuries, and she not only survives the economic crisis, she triumphs through it.
“Angela the Great,” as some of the hyperbolic German headlines describe her, captures the zeitgeist with neither dazzle nor sparkle. The words most often used to describe her political strategy range from prudent to pragmatic. She’s as plain-spoken as her plain dress. The Germans seem relieved that on this side of the bridge to the 21st century, flamboyance and charisma have been replaced by the comforting normality of sobriety and even temperament. The agonizing guilt over the Third Reich, followed by the anxiety and paranoia of the East German Stasi, both now in the garbage can of history, have been replaced by a steady sense of security.
Mrs. Merkel represents the hardworking, steady German who supports her policies and is grateful that she reined in the extravagance of the Greeks bearing gifts for themselves. She’s certainly no St. Angela, as some paint her, and she lacks the purity of the do-or-die politics that Germans find unpleasant (and puzzling) in America. Her conservatism means preserving what’s possible without falling on the sword of the improbable. While her detractors say there’s no policy she won’t compromise, her supporters say she merely preserves the important while giving in on the less important, like saving the euro without signing blank checks to the profligate countries.
Now that her center-right Christian Democrats are negotiating with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) as a coalition partner, the big questions are whether she will be a “milder Merkel” or a more “austere Angela,” whether she’ll compromise more or become a tougher chancellor. A Greek newspaper cartoonist, fearing the latter, portrays her with a crown on a throne presiding over Europe, and it wasn’t so long ago that the New Statesman, an influential magazine of the British left, portrayed her as the “Terminator: Europe’s most dangerous leader.”
At her first news conference here in Berlin after her re-election, she said that “the process of reforms isn’t just a process of austerity, but of competitiveness and solid budgets; it’s about the confidence of investors in our country.” She insists that “Germany needs a stable government.” If, a decade ago, Germany was the “sick man of Europe,” now it’s “an anchor of stability.”
Such change, she believes, led her to win big in this election, 16 percentage points above the Social Democrats, her potential junior coalition partner. She still must woo that center-left party to join her, a party that remembers how miserably it fared in her first term when the SPD was relegated to a place deep in her considerable shadow. The party suffered. This time they’re trying to play harder to get, figuring they can extract concessions on domestic policy by going for them early. They want the establishment of a minimum wage and cancellation of a subsidy for stay-at-home mothers in order to expand state day care. A cartoon in the newspaper Tagesspiegel depicts Frau Merkel as a cat, teasing the SPD mouse from its hidey hole.
When Mrs. Clinton, as secretary of state, visited Chancellor Merkel, a newspaper photograph showed the two women from the waist down, each in a different colored blazer and black trousers, asking the viewer to try to tell them apart. With their husbands, the difference would have been dramatic. Frau Merkel has been married twice, and kept the name of her first husband. Few Germans know anything about her current husband (or even his name), although he occasionally attends public events. She stands alone on center stage, and the Germans like it that way. There’s neither Bubba nor “co-chancellorship” here.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.