By Nikolas Foster
It's been a tough four years for Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), so much so that comparisons with the U.S. Republican party's woes aren't too far off base. Chancellor Schroeder made an unpopular move to Gazprom just weeks after leaving office; party vice president Kurt Beck stepped down over supporting coalitions with the Left party (Die Linke). Now comes "Limogate": health minister Ulla Schmidt allegedly took her chauffeured limousine on vacation to Spain, where it was stolen. Now the SPD must explain why Schmidt needed the 100,000-Euro vehicle on her vacation, when it should be campaigning for the upcoming September 27th general elections. This won't be easy, since the trip only included two official events: speaking with German retirees and meeting the mayor of the village in which she stayed.
But scandals aren't the only thing keeping the SPD, or the Republican party, from moving forward. At the heart of their internal debates are identity crises and leadership voids. In the U.S., Republicans are still debating whether November 4th, 2008 came because of being too conservative or not being conservative enough; they aren't yet sure which direction to move to try to take back Congress. And they'll have to wait at least through the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Virginia for their next clear sign. A win by the conservative candidate Robert F. McDonnell could indicate a turn towards the right. A loss could bring a shift towards a more moderate policy similar to that of former Utah Governor and current U.S. ambassador to China John Huntsman.
In any case, the GOP might want to take a close look at the SPD's decade-long recalibration. In Germany, former Chancellor Schroeder's employment reform has moved the SPD, Germany's traditional worker party, considerably to the center. But centrist policies like pushing through labor reforms that shortened unemployment benefits or sending Germany's army into its first out-of-area combat missions have turned out to be counterproductive. The SPD's former base has defected to Die Linke or the Green Party, and many have stopped voting all together. Caught between an increasingly social Christian Democrats (CDU) moving towards the middle and Die Linke's rise on the left, the SPD's outlook for the elections is bleak.
Just as the SPD's move towards the center has left its base in disarray, a move by the GOP towards the middle could leave the religious right, the social conservatives and fringe groups like the Birthers politically homeless. Both parties look with anticipation to the upcoming elections, hoping no new scandals will emerge. But until the results are in, the time for political soul-searching continues - in Berlin as much as in Washington, DC.
Nikolas Foster is a graduate student in Energy and Environmental Policy and International Economics at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.