For Americans who think some of our politicians do dumb things, we are not alone. Germany has a politician who rivals our most inept. In fact, he is running to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel next September — or sooner if instability threatens the ruling coalition. His name is Peer Steinbeck, he’s from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and he seems to be doing everything he can to ensure that Merkel wins.
Merkel is one of the world’s strongest political leaders. She is very popular, and beating her would be hard for the best of challengers. As it is, Steinbeck has become a laughing stock in Germany.
Steinbeck takes prides in always saying what he thinks. He is not like politicians who are happy to obscure their position on this or that issue. They want to make the left happy while keeping the right in their corner. Merkel speaks carefully but truthfully and is highly respected. Germany is the main engine in Europe not only because its economy is the strongest in Europe but also because it calls the shots on how Europeans respond to their financial problems. And Merkel is the person calling the shots.
Merkel made very clear to Greece and other countries with poor economies and vast social systems that they cannot expect continued aid from Germany if they don’t get busy restructuring their economies and social programs. Her point was profoundly simple: if you can’t afford it, don’t spend the money. The money Greece was spending to support its social systems far outweighed the amount of money it was taking in. Much to the appreciation of the German populace, Merkel told the Greeks to cut their social spending or Germany would not give them the aid they wanted.
Now to Steinbeck and the SPD. Its leaders recognized that they had to do something to challenge Merkel. After all, the last election represented the worst defeat for the SPD since World War II. The SPD leaders decided that the pugnacious Steinbeck was the answer.
Steinbeck has publicly called on other European countries to “use the whip” on Switzerland because of its tax havens. He also compared other European countries to “Indians running scared from the cavalry.” He accused Merkel of vacillating in the euro crisis and letting European partners suffer to advance her popularity at home.
Steinbeck’s most recent actions suggest that he might want to consider political comedy. To begin with, he spent months defending himself because of $1.6 million he received on his lecture tour over the last three years. That’s not what one would expect from a presidential candidate. He followed that up by stating that the only reason Merkel was doing so well was because she was a “woman’s bonus.” Said Steinbeck: “A large share of female voters recognize how she has asserted herself in her party and beyond that in Europe for a time ... That is not my disadvantage but her advantage.”
As one might expect, his use of the term “bonus” set off an earthquake in Germany. Steinbeck also said he did not find money “erotic,” which has left Germans wondering what he means. It seems he cannot stop making one embarrassing comment after another.
To cite another example, he complained that at about $390,000 a year, the chancellor is not paid well enough. Gerhard Schroeder, Germany’s last SPD leader, slapped Steinbeck down, telling a German newspaper, “Anyone who doesn’t feel like the pay is enough can always look for another career.”
Steinbeck has little chance of winning because as the German news magazine Der Spiegel commented, he “stumbles from mishap to mishap.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said Steinbeck was running “a perfect campaign, for the opponent.”
Not surprisingly, members of the SPD are upset and embarrassed. Steinbeck may be pugnacious, but his inability to control his mouth almost guarantees that the SPD will suffer another loss of historic proportions.
So what is the lesson? A political party should evaluate its candidates for top positions very carefully before letting them loose on the political stage.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of Council on Foreign Relations.