All Politics is Local…also auf Deutsch 

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.

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.

Jackson Janes

President of AICGS

Jackson Janes is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics from 2005-2010.

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Atlantic Council of the United States. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee , Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS), the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association, and the American Bundestag Intern Network (ABIN) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Board of the German American Fulbright Commission and serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington DC.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Education:
Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Expertise:
Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.