As Tip O’Neill once said, all politics is local. Had he heard the debate on Sunday between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, he would have just nodded.
The exchange between the two challengers was anything but riveting, following the same pattern of verbal jousting one encounters in the unending chain of talk shows in Germany. There is a perimeter of attack and defense which stays tightly in place, not unlike the trench warfare of the First World War.
Merkel and Schulz found themselves challenged to really distinguish their positions on a number of issues—refugee challenges, relations with Turkey, retirement age. When it got into the weeds of road tolls and tax reform, they both got wonky. There was almost an hour spent on the refugee crisis and then a chunk of time on how Germany can protect itself from terrorist attacks.
There was a good deal of back and forth about the refugee issue in the framework of relations with Turkey, and what one should do to prevent people from fleeing their countries in the Middle East and Africa. There was also a lot of talk about dealing with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and whether he had forfeited his country’s right to be a member of the European Union. That was an issue where Merkel and Schulz tried to show their tough sides.
On the other hand, there was nothing on other global foreign policy issues—dealing with Putin or Russia, NATO, or the other global threats looming—only those where another wave of refugees might storm the gates.
There was not much about the future of the European Union facing Brexit. Nothing much about transatlantic relations. There were a couple of awkward minutes on how to deal with Trump during which Schulz trashed Trump’s tweets while Merkel brought up her congratulatory note to the president saying relations had to be based on shared values. But that was that.
It wasn’t the candidates’ fault alone. They reacted to the moderators with the ammunition they came with. Merkel actually admonished them at the end that they had not gotten very far beyond their domestic backyard.
She parried the thrust of Schulz with an air of authority while Schulz tried to explain why he was the better candidate. And that proved to be a challenge.
So we are back to the adage of Tip O’Neill. The debate was a mirror of what four moderators thought most Germans would be interested in. That might speak volumes itself about the horizons of this election—if it is accurate. The color of the coalition may be far less important to most voters than what they believe the candidates can/will actually deliver.
Thinking about what drove the election in the U.S. last year, it is difficult to argue that there was a more sophisticated agenda involved, particularly when reflecting on the unending low caliber, circus-like atmosphere of the so-called debates orchestrated around the country. Germans might be thankful they only had one of these debates to absorb. Whether the debate made a real difference in helping Germans make up their minds remains fodder for pundits and pollsters. The rest can wait another three weeks to find out the answer.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
Image: DUSSELDORF, GERMANY – SEPTEMBER 03: People watch German Chancellor and Christian Democrat (CDU) Angela Merkel debate with her main opponent, Social Democrat (SPD) and chancellor candidate Martin Schulz, during their live debate at a public viewing organized by the SPD on September 3, 2017 in Dusseldorf, Germany. Merkel currently has a double-digit lead over Schulz and analysts are not expecting today’s debate, which will be the only television debate between the two candidates, to make much difference. Germany is scheduled to hold federal elections on September 24. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)