Germany's chancellor race mired in floodwater

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BERLIN — Some of Germany’s greatest political legends were forged above the high-water mark.

Helmut Schmidt, the chainsmoking Social Democrat who died in 2015 at 96, was a household name long before becoming chancellor due to the central role he played as a local politician in Hamburg in helping save the city from destruction during a disastrous storm surge in 1962 that killed more than 300.

Gerhard Schröder, who was on the ropes in his bid for reelection as chancellor in 2002, turned things around in the final stretch over the summer, thanks in no small part to a flood that ravaged parts of eastern Germany. Schröder, camera teams in tow, donned a raincoat and rubber boots as he surveyed the region, a picture of compassion and concern. 

And then there’s Armin Laschet. 

By the looks of it, Germany’s ongoing flood disaster is more likely to break the Christian Democrat leader and candidate for chancellor than make him. 

A video that emerged over the weekend showed Laschet grinning from ear to ear and joking with colleagues while President Frank-Walter Steinmeier offered a somber assessment to journalists of the loss and destruction he witnessed in the flooded region. The pictures triggered widespread outrage. 

“This scene is repugnant, there’s no other way to put it,” wrote one commentator, offering an assessment shared across the country. 

Laschet quickly apologized on Sunday, saying his laughter was “not appropriate,” but the damage was done.  

Germany’s political system is often praised abroad for its emphasis on policy over personality, but its political campaigns are ultimately shaped by the same intangible as they are everywhere else: image. 

By that measure, Laschet has committed a blunder that he will have difficulty recovering from. Among the enduring images the flood has produced, in addition to the unprecedented devastation, is that of Laschet’s puckish grin.

It doesn’t help that the woman he hopes to succeed has presented a memorable moment of her own. Hot on the heels of Laschet’s faux pas, Merkel visited a town devastated by a flood surge, walking hand in hand with Malu Dreyer, the Social Democratic leader of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Merkel struck a chord in her remarks as well, saying “the German language knows hardly any words for this devastation.” Most importantly, she didn’t smile. 

The problem for Laschet is that empathy is supposed to be his strong point. He vanquished his main challenger in this year’s race to lead the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by selling himself not just as a man of the people, but as a nice guy. 

Atmospherics aren’t the only challenge Laschet faces when it comes to the floods, however. In addition to his position atop the CDU, Laschet is also the leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s largest state and one of the areas hardest hit by the floods. The potentially bigger problem he faces is in explaining why his government didn’t act sooner on the warnings it received about the pending catastrophe and urge local communities to evacuate. 

As long as that question lingers, Laschet will have difficulty in convincing Germans of his crisis management skills.    

That isn’t to say all is lost for him. If there’s one quality Laschet has shown in the battle to lead the CDU and become the center right’s candidate for chancellor, it’s resilience. 

But Laschet’s greatest advantage in the general election might be the weakness of his primary opponent, the Greens. The environmental party was riding high this spring as the CDU struggled with corruption in its ranks and the succession race. But in recent weeks the Greens have fallen back to earth, retreating below 20 percent for the first time since March from a high of 25 percent, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. The drop comes as the Greens’ lead candidate, Annalena Baerbock, has faced damaging allegations of plagiarism and evidence that she dressed up her resumé. 

The floods, which climate scientists link to global warming, would normally provide the Greens with an opening to exploit in the campaign. But first, they have to overcome lingering doubts about Baerbock’s suitability as a potential chancellor.

Before the floods, the Christian Democrats were polling just under 30 percent, recovering some of the ground they lost in the spring. That makes Laschet the odds-on favorite to succeed Merkel. 

Even so, if Laschet’s crisis management doesn’t improve, it will be a hollow victory. Even before the floods, Laschet’s standing among the public was weak. Most voters wanted his conservative challenger, Bavarian premier Markus Söder, to become the center right’s candidate for chancellor. Laschet only got the nod thanks to intense backroom maneuvering by party grandees. He also won the CDU’s leadership by the skin of his teeth.  

So even if he becomes chancellor, he’s likely to start without a strong mandate and with a target on his back. 

At least he’ll be able to laugh about it.  

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