“There was this feeling that Schröder betrayed the working class and that Schulz [would] roll back Schröder’s reforms and make the SPD great again,” Alan Posener of Die Welt, a conservative daily, said. “Schulz was on to something with the overworked, underpaid individual and stressed-out working parents,” Stefan Reinecke, an expert on the German left, told me. “Many Germans don’t want more Merkel. Schulz … was a kind of projection screen for their wishes.”
By March 9th, only one percentage point separated Schulz and Merkel, the closest the SPD had come to the CDU since the early aughts. But it would come no closer.
As it grew clear that Schulz lacked both a plan and much in the way of demonstrable political wins for the common folk, his luster wore off. “All the hype ... came from the deep frustration of the party’s members who missed the SPD as they once knew it,” Klaus Linsenmeier of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank close to the Greens, told me. “But the party miscalculated. It gradually became obvious that Schulz wasn’t really any different than the others,” he said, referring to today’s Social Democrats and their abandonment of the party’s values. Neither Schulz nor his Social Democrat allies would risk embracing a more controversial agenda—throwing their lot in with the country’s leftist parties, for instance—that could have mounted a real challenge to Merkel.
While Schulz’s winter ascent began with the sort of rebelliousness and bold thinking that distinguished the party of Willy Brandt from Germany’s conservatives and free-market liberals, he retreated to the moderate, equivocal truisms that make up the SPD’s program. The closeness of the CDU and SPD programs were on display during the lackluster debate between Schulz and Merkel, in which Schulz struggled to find and emphasize differences between the two. In a savvy shift to the center, Merkel’s CDU has adopted an array of signature SPD demands—from a legal minimum wage to exiting nuclear power—and turned them into law. “What’s the point of voting Social Democrat when you have Merkel’s CDU?” Kai Arzheimer, a political scientist at Mainz University, told the Financial Times. “All the left’s demands … have been implemented by a CDU-led government.”
Through the spring, the SPD took a beating in three regional elections, suggesting that the Schulz phenomenon had no carryover effect. National polls soon turned around too. “There simply wasn’t enough substance there to back him up,” an SPD insider in Berlin told me. “We wanted to capitalize on the moment but we moved too quickly, and it backfired.” Schulz, Reinecke said, “only named the problem, he didn’t propose any credible solutions … When he eventually did, they were really quite timid, the kind even Merkel could go along with.”
By June 1st, polls showed 24 percent more Germans trusted the Merkel they knew rather than the Schulz they didn’t. Nearly half of those asked said they’d expected more from Schulz. The fertile soil of discontent from which populisms feed was missing, too. In early summer, 72 percent of Germans credited Merkel with the robust economy, and roughly the same number felt she best ensured stability in an unstable world. (Interestingly, almost 60 percent also said Merkel’s best years as chancellor were behind her.)