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BERLIN – Some of Germany’s greatest political legends were forged above the high water mark.
Helmut Schmidt, the chain-smoking Social Democrat who died in 2015 at the age of 96, was well known long before he became chancellor because, as a local politician in Hamburg, he played a central role in saving the city from destruction by a devastating storm surge in 1962 killed.
Gerhard Schröder, who was on the ropes when he was re-elected as Federal Chancellor in 2002, was on the final spurt in the summer, not least thanks to a flood that devastated parts of East Germany. Schröder, camera teams in tow, put on raincoat and rubber boots as he surveyed the region, a picture of compassion and concern.
And then there is Armin Laschet.
As it stands, the ongoing flood disaster in Germany will break the Christian Democratic leader and candidate for chancellor rather than make him.
A video that emerged over the weekend showed Laschet grinning from ear to ear and joking with colleagues, while President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave journalists a gloomy assessment of the losses and destruction he witnessed in the flooded region. The pictures caused great outrage.
“This scene is repulsive, there is no other way of expressing it,” wrote one commentator, giving an assessment that was shared across the country.
Lash quickly he apologized On Sunday he said his laugh was “inappropriate” but the damage was done.
Germany’s political system is often praised abroad for its emphasis on politics through personality, but its political campaigns are ultimately shaped by the same immaterial as everywhere else: image.
In doing so, Laschet made a mistake from which he will find it difficult to recover. The lasting images of the flood include the unprecedented devastation and Laschet’s cheeky grin.
It doesn’t help that the woman he hopes to be successful presented a memorable moment for herself. On the heels of Laschet’s faux pas, Merkel visited a city devastated by a tidal wave and went hand in hand with Malu Dreyer, the Social Democratic parliamentary group leader of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
Merkel also hit a nerve with her remarks: “The German language hardly knows any words for this devastation”. Most importantly, she wasn’t smiling.
The problem for Laschet is that empathy should be his strength. He defeated his greatest challenger in this year’s race for the CDU by selling himself not just as a man of the people, but as a nice guy.
However, the atmosphere isn’t the only challenge Laschet faces when it comes to flooding. In addition to his position in the CDU, Laschet is also the chairman of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s largest state and one of the areas hardest hit by the floods. The potentially bigger problem he faces is explaining why his government did not respond earlier to the warnings it received of the impending disaster and urging local communities to evacuate.
As long as this question persists, Laschet will have difficulty convincing the Germans of his crisis management skills.
That doesn’t mean that all is lost for him. If there is one quality that Laschet has demonstrated in the struggle for the leadership of the CDU and the center-right candidate for chancellor, it is resilience.
But Laschet’s greatest advantage in the general election is likely to be the weakness of his main opponent, the Greens. The environmental party was very popular this spring when the CDU struggled with corruption in its ranks and the successor race. But in recent weeks the Greens have fallen back to earth and, according to the POLITICO Poll of Polls, have fallen from a high of 25 percent to below 20 percent for the first time since March. The decline comes when the Greens’ top candidate Annalena Baerbock was faced with harmful plagiarism allegations and evidence that she beautified her résumé.
The floods that climate scientists associate with global warming would normally give the Greens a chance to use in the campaign. But first, doubts about Baerbock’s suitability as a potential chancellor must be dispelled.
Before the flood, the Christian Democrats questioned almost 30 percent and thus made up part of the ground lost in the spring. This makes Laschet the quota favorite for Merkel’s successor.
Even if Laschet’s crisis management does not improve, it is a hollow victory. Even before the floods, Laschet’s public image was weak. Most voters wanted his conservative challenger, Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder, to be the center-right’s candidate for chancellor. Laschet only got the nod thanks to intense backroom maneuvers from party grandees. He also narrowly won the leadership of the CDU.
Even if he becomes chancellor, he will likely start without a strong mandate and with a purpose behind his back.
At least he can laugh about it.