Weekly Review Succession planning for chancellors: Angela Merkel’s team of rivals

With two shrewd staff moves, Angela Merkel has neutered a naysayer (Jens Spahn) and simultaneously anointed her favorite (Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer) as heiress apparent.

Part of the political genius of Abraham Lincoln was that he built a “team of rivals,” as his biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, called it. One of his successors, Lyndon Baines Johnson, expressed the underlying management logic more saucily and succinctly in pondering one of his own rivals: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”

In style, Mr. Johnson’s quote is hard to imagine coming from Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. But in sentiment, it is vintage Merkel. This week the chancellor, in control of her party for 18 years and of government for more than 12, again displayed the tactical prowess she is known for. She did this with symmetrical appointments of two politicians within her own party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Taken together, these moves amounted to the simultaneous anointing of an heiress and neutering of an opponent.

The opponent who will henceforth be inside her tent, aiming his trajectory outward, is Jens Spahn. He is an up-and-coming thirty-something, overtly ambitious and proudly gay. For two years he has been playing gadfly to the sixty-something chancellor, even rousing a party convention with a surprise motion against dual citizenship intended to embarrass her. A darling of TV talk shows, Mr. Spahn has been dog-whistling to the party’s frustrated right wing with messages against cosmopolitanism and for cultural purity. If the CDU were ever to turn on Ms. Merkel, Mr. Spahn might well play Brutus.

But instead of scheming, Mr. Spahn will now be spending his time buried in files about health care. That’s because Ms. Merkel wants to bring him into her next cabinet as minister. (This still depends on whether the planned coalition between the CDU and the center-left Social Democrats actually happens, which will be decided on Sunday.)

Different trajectories: Spahn and Kramp-Karrenbauer.

What an honor for Mr. Spahn. Seated at her table, he will be obliged to play nicely. His subject, health care policy, may be inflammatory in America, but in Germany has been known to cure insomniacs. It is also a portfolio riddled with complexities and pitfalls, and practically invites failure. Ms. Merkel can hardly wait for all the explaining Mr. Spahn may soon have to do on those TV talk shows.

Ms. Merkel devised a different destiny for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Occasionally dubbed AKK or “mini-Merkel” by the German press, she is something of an anti-Spahn. As a socially conservative Catholic, she opposed the legalization of gay marriage last year that allowed Mr. Spahn to marry his partner. But on economic policy, she is, like Ms. Merkel, somewhere between malleable and left-of-center. Temperamentally, she in effect is a younger version of the chancellor, as Barbara Woosley, one of our editors, shows in this rich and nuanced profile of AKK. She unites rather than divides, assuages rather than escalates, conciliates rather than alienates.

So AKK is the woman to whom Ms. Merkel wants to bequeath the leadership of, first, the CDU and, second, the government. In due course. Both women know that Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer, the outgoing premier of a small rust-belt state on the French border, still needs an apprenticeship in statecraft. She must also gather the CDU’s rank and file behind her and give the party cohesion and direction.

That’s why Ms. Merkel has made Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer the new secretary general of the CDU, in effect its deputy leader and chief administrator. There is no better launch pad to the chancellery than this. As it happens, Ms. Merkel herself once took that job, between 1998-2000. It was thence she swept aside Helmut Kohl and Wolfgang Schäuble in her own rise to power. This time, Ms. Merkel must be hoping for her own sake, why not manage the succession more harmoniously?

To contact the author: a.kluth (at) handelsblattgroup.com