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BERLIN – Some of Germany’s greatest political legends were forged above the high water mark.
Helmut Schmidt, the smoky chain-smoking Social Democrat who died in 2015 at age 96, was a household name long before he became chancellor due to the pivotal role he played as a local politician in Hamburg to help save the city of destruction in a disastrous storm surge in 1962 that killed more than 300.
Gerhard Schröder, who was on the ropes in his bid for re-election as chancellor in 2002, turned things around in the home stretch over the summer, largely thanks to a flood that ravaged parts of eastern Germany. Schröder, the film crews in tow, donned a raincoat and rubber boots as he surveyed the area, an image of compassion and concern.
And then there is Armin Laschet.
At first glance, the current flood disaster in Germany is more likely to shatter the Christian Democrat leader and candidate for chancellor than it does.
A video released over the weekend showed Laschet smiling from ear to ear and joking with his colleagues as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier offered reporters a grim assessment of the loss and destruction he had witnessed in the flooded region. The images sparked outrage.
“This scene is disgusting, there is no other way to put it,” wrote one commentator, offering a shared assessment across the country.
Laschet quickly apologized Sunday, claiming his laugh was “not appropriate”, but the damage was done.
Germany’s political system is often praised abroad for its emphasis on politics rather than personality, but its political campaigns are ultimately shaped by the same intangible as they are everywhere else: image.
By this measure, Laschet committed a blunder from which he will have difficulty recovering. Among the enduring images that the Flood produced, in addition to the unprecedented devastation, is that of Laschet’s modest smile.
It doesn’t help that the woman he hopes to be successful presented a memorable moment to her. In the wake of Laschet’s misstep, Merkel visited a city devastated by a flood, walking hand in hand with Malu Dreyer, the social democratic leader of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
Merkel also struck a chord in her remarks, saying that “the German language knows hardly any words for this devastation”. Above all, she wasn’t smiling.
The problem for Laschet is that empathy is supposed to be his strong suit. He defeated his main challenger in this year’s race for the head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by selling himself not only as a common man, but as a nice guy.
However, the atmosphere is not the only challenge Laschet faces when it comes to flooding. In addition to his position at the top of the CDU, Laschet is also the leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s largest state and one of the regions hardest hit by the floods. The potentially bigger problem he faces is explaining why his government did not respond sooner to the warnings it received about the impending disaster and urged local communities to evacuate.
As long as this question persists, Laschet will find it difficult to convince the Germans of his skills in crisis management.
This does not mean that all is lost for him. If there is one quality that Laschet has shown in the battle to lead the CDU and become the center-right candidate for chancellor, it is resilience.
But Laschet’s biggest advantage in the general election could be the weakness of his main opponent, the Greens. The Green Party was on the rise this spring as the CDU fought against corruption in its ranks and the race for succession. But in recent weeks, the Greens have fallen back to earth, falling below 20 percent for the first time since March from a high of 25 percent, according to the POLITICO poll. The drop comes as the Greens’ main candidate, Annalena Baerbock, has faced damaging allegations of plagiarism and evidence that she has dressed up her CV.
The floods, which climatologists link to global warming, would normally provide the Greens with an opening to exploit in the countryside. But first, they must overcome lingering doubts about Baerbock’s suitability as a potential chancellor.
Before the floods, the Christian Democrats voted just under 30 percent, reclaiming some of the ground they lost in the spring. This makes Laschet the favorite to succeed Merkel.
Even so, if Laschet’s crisis management does not improve, it will be an empty victory. Even before the floods, Laschet’s position among the public was weak. Most voters wanted his conservative challenger, Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder, to become the center-right candidate for chancellor. Laschet only got the green light thanks to the intense behind-the-scenes maneuvers of the big party. He also won the CDU leadership by the skin of his teeth.
So even if he does become Chancellor, he’s likely to start without a strong mandate and with a target on his back.
At least he can laugh about it.