Amateur Hour at the SPD Merkel Challenger Steinbrück Fails to Find His Feet

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Part 2: Pinot Grigio and the SPD's Soul


Yet when he became the SPD's candidate, he was suddenly the center of attention, and soon his secondary sources of income became an issue. He had collected €1.25 million ($1.64 million) in speaking fees between November 2009 and July 2012. One fee seemed particularly objectionable: €25,000, for a roughly one-hour speech, paid by the public utility in the cash-strapped city of Bochum in the industrial Ruhr region.

Steinbrück eventually decided to utter a few words of regret about the Bochum case. Otherwise, though, he insisted that everything had been perfectly legal, and then proceeded to accuse the media of hyping the issue. He seemed not to understand that the SPD still wants to represent the working class and that some of its voters might find it unfair that men like Steinbrück are paid a lot of money for little work, while they are paid little money for a lot of work. A few explanatory remarks certainly would have helped, but Steinbrück brusquely rejected such demands as an imposition. It had all been completely above reproach, and that was that, he said.

But that wasn't that. In early December, he cheerfully said: "I wouldn't buy a bottle of Pinot Grigio for only €5." The connoisseur with exquisite taste isn't exactly a standard role in the world of Social Democrats.

In the wake of this string of gaffes, it seemed odd for Steinbrück to be telling the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, on Dec. 30, that the German chancellor's salary is too low, as if he were making sure that he would never have to drink a bottle of Pinot Grigio for less than €20. Indeed, in the first weeks of his candidacy, Steinbrück has given the impression that money means a great deal to him -- and that he has but little sympathy for the concerns of people with low incomes.

Never Forgive Him

Nobody, of course, expected Steinbrück to be a flawless Social Democrat. He has long tended to be obtuse when it comes to social issues. Steinbrück is a fiscal policy expert by nature and has often found himself at odds with lawmakers who focus on social policy, because they need budget resources for their programs. Furthermore, Steinbrück has always been a big supporter of the far-reaching welfare reforms passed under SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The reforms have since fallen into disrepute in his party, but Steinbrück has called them "one of the greatest political achievements of the postwar era." Many SPD social policy experts will never forgive him for that remark.

Most of all, Steinbrück has an eye for economic issues. Indeed, his entire disposition places him more squarely in the camp of employers than that of workers.

There isn't anything objectionable about this, of course. It does, however, make his path to the Chancellery, a path that he must tread with the full support of the SPD, that much more difficult. Fairness remains one of the party's biggest issues and he has to represent the interests of SPD voters in a credible way, which requires incorporating their desires and sensitivities into his message. In this respect, he hasn't found the right balance. He is still the candidate of the Steinbrück party, not of the SPD. This is as egocentric as it is unprofessional.

In short, the situation could hardly be worse after three months. How does the SPD expect to win an election with a candidate who alienates a large share of his party, consistently trips over his tongue and is engaged in a subtle feud with the party chairman?

Waiting for the Next Gaffe

Steinbrück's candidacy isn't quite on the rocks yet, but the party will not support his candidacy forever. Jan. 20, when Lower Saxony elects a new state parliament, is an important date. If the SPD loses ground in that election and fails to regain power, the chatter will only increase.

Given Steinbrück's temperament and defiant nature, his gaffes could very well continue. At the moment, hardly anyone feels confident in victory, although it is possible, depending on how many of the smaller parties capture seats in the Bundestag.

In their defeatist hours, leading Social Democrats sometimes make a leap forward in time. Instead of focusing on the 2013 election, their thoughts turn to 2017. By then, the current governor of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, will be ready for a candidacy. She is already the most popular SPD politician among voters, though she declined to run this time around, and party members see her as a woman who can embody the heart of the center left.

For now, it seems likely that the party will stomach Steinbrück until the end of this election campaign. But what about him? Will Steinbrück stomach the SPD much longer? He is an impulsive and sensitive person, and he would certainly not tolerate every act of blasphemy or disloyalty. But that point hasn't been reached yet. Steinbrück wants to keep going and keep on talking. Which means that it is only a matter of time until the next gaffe hits the headlines.

BY RALF BESTE, DIRK KURBJUWEIT, ANN-KATHRIN NEZIK, GORDON REPINSKI and BARBARA SCHMID

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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