BERLIN -- All politics might be local, but in the age of globalization, all politics also look strangely American. This is undoubtedly good news for American campaign consultants. But it suggests that the personality-driven, relatively substance-free and highly successful campaign run by President Obama is not unique to America.
Despite an ever-better-educated electorate, unprecedented access to a wide variety of information, and compelling economic and foreign policy challenges, the German election this week demonstrated that voters here, much as in the United States, are moved by slogans, gauzy images and emotional appeal.
Nevertheless, it is notable that the two parties that made the most gains at the German polls -- the Free Democrats and the Left party -- ran the most substantive campaigns.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic party and its Christian Social Union partners in Bavaria won a plurality of the national vote in the election here Sunday and will now form a government with the centrist Free Democrats. This ends the Grand Coalition of conservatives and social democrats that governed Germany the last four years.
An Elvis impersonator warmed up the crowd with "Heartbreak Hotel" and "It's Now or Never" before the final campaign rally Saturday for Merkel in an arena that was once an East Berlin factory. Then the stolid conservative Christian Democratic incumbent, who physically personifies the stereotypical image of a German house frau and whose supporters often affectionately refer to her as "mutti" (mommy), strode into the hall to the strains of "Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones.
A day earlier, the closing Social Democratic party campaign rally in front of the Brandenburg gate featured AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" -- an inauspicious musical selection given the party's ensuing debacle on election day, when it received a smaller portion of the vote than in any election since World War II.
German politicians have studied U.S. elections, copied their techniques and, sadly, have learned that, as in years past, form trumps substance in dealing with a modern electorate.
"Everyone was trying just to get past election day," said Reinhard Butikofer, the former head of the German Green Party, who is now a member of the European Parliament.
As a result, quipped Miriam Hollstein, political editor of Welt am Sonntag, "even by German standards, this was a boring election." But the style and conduct of the campaign said a lot about the future of politics around the world.
In lieu of policy prescriptions, the governing Christian Democrats ran a campaign based almost exclusively on the cult of Merkel. "We vote for the Chancellor" proclaimed one prominent poster, using the female term Kanzlerine both to proudly remind voters that Merkel is Germany's first female leader and to appeal to the power of incumbency, much as Richard Nixon did in 1972.
Another poster trumpeted "We have the power," implicitly saying the party has done a tough job and has the experience to continue it.
Christian Democratic activists admit they tested issue-based themes and partisan approaches that might have drawn clear distinctions between Merkel and her competitors. But their polling and focus groups found that their supporters disdained partisanship and harsh campaign rhetoric. "It lost us votes," said one adviser sheepishly. The public wanted a candidate that brought people together. So the party stressed the theme "United for our Land" and at rallies supporters brandished placards that simply said "Wir," which means "us" or "we" in German. Echoes of candidate Obama's "Hope" poster!
The Social Democratic party's campaign theme was hardly more precise. Their campaign slogan -- "The Country Can Do Better" -- appealed to hopes and idealism during a time of economic troubles.
In contrast, the Free Democrats promised tax cuts and a more market-oriented economy and earned more votes than any time in its history.
The Left Party -- a collection of disgruntled Social Democrats and former Communists -- also ran an unabashed issue-based campaign. Their reward, roughly 12 percent of the vote, was the best performance in their short life as a party, suggesting a substantive campaign, however controversial, can still draw support.
Nevertheless, "all parties avoided talking about how to deal with the consequences of the [economic] crisis," according to Jorg Lau, the political affairs correspondent for Die Zeit, a highly respected weekly newspaper.
Political campaigns in mass democracies have always been about personalities, symbols and emotion. There was certainly no substance in the "Honest Abe" slogans in the 1860 U.S. presidential election.
Nevertheless, the contrast in the German election could not have been more stark. The ruling Christian Democrats retained their top spot as they ran an issue-free campaign, but lost votes in the process.
In contrast, the business-oriented Free Democrats and the Left gained votes by actually suggesting policy changes. There might yet be hope for substantive political dialogue.
This article appears in the October 3, 2009 edition of NJ Daily.