The Plank

Angela's Ashes

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In early September, while passing through the Frankfurt airport, I watched a press conference on TV in which
the German Social Democrats rolled out their new leadership team and set their
course for national elections a year later. The mood was somber, almost
suicidal. These gray-haired, dour men seemed to be offering themselves up as human
sacrifices before the juggernaut of Angela Merkel and her center-right
Christian Democrats. Polls only underlined that impression: Merkel was riding
high.

What a difference three months can make. Of all Europe’s leaders, no one has suffered from the economic
crisis quite as much as Merkel, because no one has mishandled the crisis quite
as badly as Merkel. Germany is facing its biggest economic challenge since
World War II--the Bundesbank is
predicting
GDP to shrink by at least, 0.8 percent in 2009; many think that's overly optimistic--and economists,
politicians, media and the public across the spectrum are calling for tax
cuts and stimulus spending
of the sort being rolled out in France and other
EU states.

 

But Merkel prefers to play the Dutch uncle--er, aunt--in this
situation, telling a recent party congress that the crisis called not for
government action but personal belt-tightening. Doing her best Jimmy Carter
impression, she told the German parliament that her goal “is not to overcome
the crisis" but "to build a bridge so that we at least can start
recovering in 2010."

 

Needless to say, her stance is unpopular. “The hour of the
Chancellor has chimed, but Merkel is behaving as though she hasn't heard the
gong,” wrote Der
Spiegel
. Joschka
Fischer
, the former Green Party foreign minister, said "Europe's largest economy is giving the impression that it
is now acting in a purely national way--no longer in a European way." Even
the Christian Democrats’ sister party, the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union,
has lashed
out
at the chancellor.

 

Merkel isn’t doomed yet, if only because the hapless Social
Democrats have yet to take advantage of the situation. But her numbers are
taking a beating: A poll this week only 52 percent of voters felt "Merkel
will ensure an economic upturn in Germany,” down from 69 percent a
year ago.

 

But the real risk is that Merkel is destroying Germany’s near-hegemonic
role in European affairs. It’s not just economic. On a variety of political
issues, where once Germany could be expected to assert a multilateral
leadership role, she has chosen a meandering unilateral
path
instead: Allowing vast exceptions for German industry on climate
regulations, refusing to take a strong stand against Russia, and dragging her
feet on Iranian sanctions. Instead of working with Sarkozy and others on an
EU-wide economic response, she’s criticized their fiscal stimulus plans. Paris and London
aren’t taking her intransigence lying down: The UK’s Gordon Brown has called an
emergency economic summit of European leaders for Monday. Not on the invite
list? Angela Merkel.

 

When she came into office, fans said she would be Germany’s
Margaret Thatcher. Now she’s looking more and more like Germany’s
Herbert Hoover.

 

--Clay Risen

 

 

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