German Greens in deep ‘Scheisse’ after leader’s stumbles
Expletive adds to doubts over Baerbock's readiness for government
BERLIN — All she had to do was look in the camera, wave at the small audience and walk off the stage with a big smile that said “mission accomplished.” Instead, Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s Green candidate for chancellor, dropped an s-bomb.
“Scheisse!” she declared into her still-open microphone after delivering a 45-minute convention speech to party faithful Saturday.
Baerbock was apparently aggravated about flubbing a line in her address, a stumble that would have been quickly forgotten had she not bolded it with that defiant “Scheisse.”
That beginner’s mistake was one of several to plague the 40-year-old candidate in recent weeks, sowing doubt over whether she’s really ready for prime time.
Just a few weeks ago, Baerbock led the field of the three leading candidates running to become chancellor. But in a poll last week, she trailed Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, who’s in first place, by 20 percentage points.
What went wrong? Just about everything that could have.
Baerbock, who was nominated to become the Green candidate in April, couldn’t have hoped for a better launch of her campaign.
Her face was on the cover of Germany’s biggest magazines. She was the get on the primetime talk shows that Germans watch obsessively. With the governing Christian Democrats tripping from scandal to screw-up and back again, the Greens looked like the adults in the room.
In some polls, the Greens even surpassed the long-dominant Christian Democrats, triggering speculation that Baerbock might even succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.
It didn’t take long for the wheels to come off.
Much of the German media was euphoric in their initial coverage of Baerbock’s candidacy. A young, hip mother of two, she personified the craving many Germans have for something fresh in a political system effectively anesthesized by 16 years of “Merkeling.”
At the end of her first big TV interview after getting the nod to run, Baerbock was even applauded by the two journalists who questioned her.
It’s no secret that German journalists (with a few prominent exceptions) skew to the left in their politics. Yet the preference many German reporters showed for Baerbock was so obvious that it triggered a backlash on social media. Much of Germany’s mainstream media has responded to the criticism of bias by casting a much more skeptical eye on the Greens and their candidate.
The best example of that phenomenon might be Der Spiegel. After declaring Baerbock “A Woman for All Seasons” on its cover in April, the news weekly featured her a few weeks later holding a wind-blown sunflower under the headline: “Welcome to Reality.”
For Baerbock, that reality has included uncomfortable scrutiny of her background.
Instead of focusing on how and why she wants to lead Germany, Baerbock has faced difficult questions in recent weeks about her failure to report ancillary income she received from her party.
Even more damaging, she has struggled to explain a series of “mistakes” on her official CV, which the party has been forced to repeatedly revise in recent weeks.
Though none of the inconsistencies rise to the level of outright fabrication, for the leader of a party that advertises itself as a model of transparency and integrity, it’s not a good look.
What’s more, the main knock on Baerbock is that her lack of experience in government means she is too green to lead Europe’s largest country. The news that what limited experience she has may not quite be what she claimed has done little to put those doubts to rest.
Policies under attack
Beyond Baerbock’s personal travails, the Greens have been scrambling to defend their party program.
Though most Germans may endorse measures to combat climate change in the abstract, when it comes to implementing actual policy, that support starts to crack.
The Greens insist their plans are full of nuance and exceptions to help make a sustainable future affordable for all Germans, but their program lends itself to populist political attack.
Take the party’s plan to “make short flights superfluous by 2030 by expanding rail services.” After Baerbock mentioned the idea in a newspaper interview, it morphed into: “Baerbock wants to do away with short flights and no more €29 tickets to Mallorca.”
Given that few things are dearer to the German soul than vacations on the Spanish Mediterranean island (and getting there cheaply), it was only a question of time before support for the party began to wane.
It’s a pattern that has repeated itself across a range of subjects, from single-family homes (the party has been falsely accused of wanting to ban them due to poor energy efficiency) to plans to increase the price of gasoline.
The problem isn’t new. The Greens have tried for years to shake off their reputation as a Verbotspartei, or party of the ban.
That may be a caricature, but voters believe there’s a kernel of truth to it. In 2017, for example, the party lost much of the support it enjoyed in the run-up to the election over concerns it wanted to ban diesel-powered vehicles. The Greens insisted that wasn’t their intention, at least in the immediate term, but voters’ suspicions lingered.
If Germany seemed poised this spring to embrace a progressive zeitgeist by putting the Greens in power, the closer it gets to election day on September 26, the more it appears to want to stick with the status quo.
Merkel’s looming retirement means that’s not really an option. Still, Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrats’ new leader and candidate for chancellor, might not be that far off.
Currently the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia state, Laschet won’t win any prizes for charisma, but then, neither would Merkel.
If what Germans really want is a steady hand on the tiller and “no experiments,” Laschet is likely to get the job. And if voters let him, he’ll govern without the Greens.
Laschet made clear in an interview over the weekend that his top choice for a coalition partner would be the Free Democrats (FDP), a liberal, pro-business party.
“In terms of substance, the FDP is much closer to us,” said Laschet, who governs with the FDP in North Rhine-Westphalia.
For now, polls suggest Laschet won’t get his wish. However, the FDP has surged in recent weeks. If it can maintain that momentum and the CDU continues its recent rebound, there’s a fair chance they could secure enough votes to govern together. In other words, the conventional wisdom holding that the Greens’ inclusion in Germany’s next coalition is all but inevitable may prove wrong.
The Greens immediate concern is to halt their slide. The party dropped to just 20 percent in two polls over the past few days, suggesting it has lost all of the ground it gained over the spring. It also fell short of expectations in a regional election in eastern Germany last weekend, posting only a minor gain.
The weekend party convention could have provided impetus to halting that slide. The leadership succeeded in defending its moderate course, fighting off a push by more radical members to sharpen positions on environmental and other policy questions.
Baerbock received the endorsement of more than 98 percent of delegates.
A day later, however, instead of talking about Baerbock’s rousing speech, Germans were still laughing at her gaffe.
If nothing else, the past weeks have offered the Green candidate a crash course in Murphy’s Law.
Or as she might put it: Scheisse!