SPD Presents Shadow Cabinet No Stars for 'Team Steinmeier'

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the center-left Social Democrats wants to unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel in September's election. On Thursday he presented a strong shadow cabinet, but it lacks the star power that could help the party out of its doldrums in the polls.

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Prospects for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's bid for the Chancellery looked grim this week. Could he still pull off a coup on Thursday, the day he was to present the center-left Social Democrats' shadow cabinet in his bid to unseat Angela Merkel as Germany's next chancellor?

Frank-Walter Steinmeier (center) presented his campaign team on Thursday in Potsdam near Berlin: It's filled with lesser-known people with a lot of expertise, but the team isn't likely to end up on the society pages anytime soon.
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Frank-Walter Steinmeier (center) presented his campaign team on Thursday in Potsdam near Berlin: It's filled with lesser-known people with a lot of expertise, but the team isn't likely to end up on the society pages anytime soon.

Suddenly, on Thursday afternoon, a man appeared in full motorcycle gear and a yellow football scarf at the hotel in Potsdam near Berlin where Steinmeier was to make his announcement. It was Peter Struck, the departing party whip for the SPD in Germany's parliament. No, no, he ensured, he wasn't planning to serve as the sports commissioner in "Team Steinmeier."

"I just wanted to check out what was happening here," he said.

Of course, he already knew what was going to play out, since he had just attended a two-day meeting of party leaders aimed at discussing Steinmeier's strategy for the federal election on Sept. 27. They were supposed to be two relatively quiet days, but things got shaken up as a result of political scandal surrounding SPD Health Minister Ulla Schmidt's use of a government car while on vacation in Spain. The minor scandal overshadowed what was supposed to be the presentation of "Team Steinmeier," the group of senior advisors who are also likely candidates for ministerial posts in any future government. As an acting minister, it had seemed a safe bet that Schmidt would be part of his team.

But when Steinmeier arrived on Thursday at 12 p.m., Schmidt was nowhere to be seen. Her spot on the team, at least for now, will remain vacant. In what appears to have been a very complicated meeting, the two apparently reached a deal on the issue on Wednesday.

At mid-day, Steinmeier presented his 18-member shadow cabinet. It includes all the members of the party who currently hold positions in the cabinet of the grand coalition --made up of the SPD and German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats -- with the exception of Schmidt. The team also includes a few lesser-known figures like Udo Folgart, the vice president of the National Union of Farmers, who will be in charge of agricultural policies for the campaign. But what defines it above everything else is the sheer number of women -- 10, to be precise. They include deputy party chairwoman Andrea Nahles, an important leader in the SPD's left-wing party base who will be in charge of education and integration. Member of parliament Ulrike Merten will be responsible for defense policies, Karen Evers-Meyer will lead on disabilities policies and Dagmar Freitag will lead on sports.

Only one name on the list hadn't been previously leaked: Harald Christ, a venture capitalist born in 1972 who will be responsible for policies relating to small and medium-sized businesses that form the backbone of the German economy and will also be the party's answer to the popular conservative finance minister, rising star Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats.

A Solid, Albeit Lackluster Team

The team Steinmeier has picked is a solid one. It's gender-balanced and also represents the important party wings as well as the powerful states. But it is also a team that is unlikely to end up on the society pages very often -- nor is it likely to offer much in the way of surprises. Indeed, with this team, it will be difficult for Steinmeier to fill the halls during campaign appearances.

There are a lot of women on the team, and that's good. But generally, it seems a bit mediocre. What can one expect of unknown functionaries and Bundestag backbenchers in a government team? Where is the star Steinmeier can rely on to turn around a campaign that is slumping in the polls? It's also legitimate to ask why he found it urgent to name a sports commissioner. It's not as if Germany is going to be staging another World Cup anytime soon. Nor has the country applied for the Olympic Games.

"The presentation of the SPD team is a demonstration of impotence, not strength," conservative German political advisor Michael Spreng, an advisor to former chancellor candidate Edmund Stoiber, wrote on his blog.

One could formulate it that way, or you could put a more sophisticated spin on it. The team is an honest image of the possibilities the SPD has at its disposal right now. There aren't very many high-profile politicians at the state level like Manuela Schwesig -- the young social minister from the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania who will handle family policy -- that Steinmeier can bring to the table. And the SPD heavyweights in parliament, for the most part, are so old that they are more likely to go into well-earned retirement this fall than to enter into a new government. Other heavy-hitters who could have made the team more attractive may have feared a disgraceful defeat during the national election, with the SPD and Steinmeier tanking in public opinion polls. In fact, some members of the team introduced on Thursday didn't immediately agree after being asked by Steinmeier. One was farming bureaucrat Folgart, who only agreed after mulling the offer for 48 hours.

The group was notable for its lack of a star name. It's understandable the Steinmeier would eschew a political celebrity, a move that would be strewn with pitfalls and entail a huge risk. Indeed, when conservative Merkel brought University of Heidelberg Professor Paul Kirchhof into her campaign in 2005, with his plans for a flat tax, he proved to be her Achilles heel. Merkel's party ultimately prevailed, but the misstep contributed to a surge in support for then incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's SPD. Steinmeier, with his lackluster image, could easily be overshadowed. Besides, the key issues of the campaign -- the economy, labor market, education and the environment -- are already well covered by the team he has selected.

For some members of his team, their selection could actually prove to be an opportunity despite the SPD's miserable prospects in the election. Perhaps not for an already rising political star like Manuela Schwesig, but it does represent a chance for someone like Carola Reimann, who was known as a highly networked person in the science scene and will now be in charge of research and universities for Steinmeier. Or Thomas Oppermann, a smart and ambitious SPD party group leader in parliament who would love nothing better than the opportunity to go into attack mode in his role advising domestic issues against Merkel's conservative Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

Steinmeier, for his part, appears pleased with his choices. "We have the better ideas and the smarter people," he said on Thursday. Now he has 58 days remaining to convince voters.

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