There are times as a journalist when you become aware that you are in a figurative herd of buffalo stampeding across the plains in my native Colorado. And as that stampede picks up speed, as the dust and heavy breathing increase, the same questions also grow louder:
Is this stampede headed in the right direction? And is it right?
At the moment in Germany, that stampede is the media predicting – and calling for – the demise of Chancellor Merkel. The stampede grew in energy in September 2018 when Ralph Brinkhaus surprised everyone by besting Volker Kauder in a vote to pick the leader for Ms. Merkel’s conservative bloc in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament. The event was significant, the media (including me) quickly said, because Mr. Kauder’s tenure atop the parliamentary group has coincided exactly with Chancellor Merkel’s time in power.
If Mr. Kauder had to pack his bags, we were quick to write, she soon would have too as well. Smelling blood, critics jumped on the bandwagon and the stampede seemed unstoppable. But one thing gave me pause that night after penning an article saying this was the beginning of her end: Her reaction. “This is the hour of a democracy in which there are setbacks, there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” she said. And then she said the conservatives needed to continue to work “successfully” in the Bundestag and that the surprise outcome wouldn’t change that.
While the media frothed over what came next, she went back to work.
Like she always has.
The media have been calling the end of Merkel almost since the day she took office. My colleagues at Übermedien have put together a nice, German-language crib sheet of the utterings, which began on August 17, 2006, in Die Welt in a Wagnerian metaphor (because: Germany). But not only was Die Welt wrong and Chancellor Merkel hung on, she thrived.
From the outside, Ms. Merkel’s success doesn’t look like thriving. It looks like muddling through – so much so that in German the verb "to Merkel" means just that. But more and more Merkeling looks like successful compromise, not just muddling through. For years I’ve had to hear that America’s democracy is inferior to Germany’s because of its binary, all-or-nothing structure, while Germany’s multi-party systems forces compromise and progress. If that’s true, then isn’t Merkeling the pinnacle?
In just the last year her governing style has overcome at least three crises (and innumerable in her 13-year tenure). First, there was the difficulty in forming a coalition following the general election last year. When a first attempt to form an alliance between her conservatives, the environmental Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats failed, everyone seemed upset but her. She turned to new a round of talks with the Social Democrats and Merkeled out an agreement. Getting the government up and running took several months, but it happened.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer then created a crisis this summer by demanding immediate changes to Germany’s immigration policy. Despite blustering and open threats, Ms. Merkel forced Mr. Seehofer to be patient and Merkeled out an agreement that not only appeased her interior minister but also the EU.
In the latest crisis, the left in Germany demanded the head of Hans-Georg Maassen, the country’s No. 1 domestic spy, for spreading right-wing conspiracy theories. Ms. Merkel called Mr. Seehofer as well as Andrea Nahles, head of the Social Democrats, over to the chancellory for a little Merkeling. The first solution they Merkeled – promoting Mr. Maassen out of his job – didn’t go down well so, during a second round of Merkeling at the chancellory, the three agreed on a lateral move for Mr. Maassen instead. Merkeled into oblivion.
Saying she may not survive what she herself has said is her last term, underestimates her abilities as a politician. Her time has not yet come.
Andrew Bulkeley is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]