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A different America

Christoph Heinemann/gbAugust 31, 2012

German foreign policy expert Ruprecht Polenz explains in an interview with Germany's Deutschlandfunk radio why Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for US president, wants to cut taxes and social services.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney waves as he arrives onstage to accept the nomination during the final session of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Adrees Latif (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
Image: Reuters

DLF: Mr. Polenz, you attended the Republican convention in Tampa as a member of Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats and chairman of the foreign policy committee of the German parliament. What, in your view, was the most important part of Mitt Romney's acceptance speech?

Polenz: I think, for the most part, Romney wanted to tackle the economic issues because these are the issues preying on the minds of Americans. Across large swaths of America there is high unemployment and it has been that way for a long time. It used to be that if you lost your job, it didn't take long to find one just around the corner. In many parts of America that is no longer the case and it's been that way for a while. He brought up these issues and, in my view, he was making economic issues a key theme of his election campaign.

From a European perspective, where do you see the biggest differences between Romney and [President] Obama?

He did not speak much about foreign policy, saying only that he would be more forceful on Iran and would exercise more loyalty toward America's partners than Obama. I think foreign policy will not play a decisive role in the verbal arguments during the rest of the campaign. I also think that, at the end of the day - say, as far as transatlantic relations go - Romney would continue the policies of his predecessor. The US now has its focus on the Pacific region, but, like all American presidents have known before, I think Mitt Romney would be no different and knows how important transatlantic ties to Europe and to the allies here on the continent are.

…Apropos Europe…Romney repeatedly says that 'we do not want to be like Europe.' Europe, for him, is 'socialist and statist.' Is this a Republican distortion, or is this cause for self-critical introspection?

Well, there certainly are developments in Europe - ones which we are currently working on - that we need to get under control, and possibly, he means one or the other of these misguided developments, such as the excessive national debts, for example, or 'out of control' welfare budgets which are posing challenges to European countries. Incidentally, I do think it is a distortion of Europe. Europe is not sick the way it is sometimes presented in speeches. On the other hand, we should take all this with a pinch of salt. By contrasting America, it serves as a way of making it appear a little brighter.

08.08.2008, Berlin, Ruprecht POLENZ, Dr., CDU-MP, chairman foreign affairs committee, German parliament. Foto aufgenommen am Rande einer Pressekonferenz zu Georgien,
Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the German parliament's foreign policy committeeImage: picture-alliance

Let's take a look at the party platform: Tax cuts for better earners, cuts in some welfare programs. That sounds a little one-sided. How can you score points with voters in the US with such a program?

Americans have a fundamentally different view of social policies; also in their relationship to, or the question of, what the state should do on these issues. And the Republicans emphasize this very specifically. For us, it was always hard to fathom - and many may have not even been aware of it - that before Obama's healthcare reform, a large number of Americans had no health insurance whatsoever. For Germany, that is really incomprehensible. We simply have to chalk this up as an essentially different mentality. But I also have to say that the US vice-president has announced as a goal a 20 percent public expenditure quota [ratio of government consumption to GDP - the ed.]. Ours, in Germany, is more than twice that. I think therein lies the difference, in a nutshell, between our understandings of state and private; and in our country, we are a long way from that.

Taking a look at the atmosphere of such a party convention: Let us consider for a moment, whether perhaps we are moving toward an Americanization of politics. Or put differently: Could you imagine that leading candidates at CDU or SPD party conferences in Germany could talk about their parents, partners or children before, if at all, talking about their political programs?

In past election campaigns we have seen, now and again, certain stirrings of American-style staging - and I mean conventions: marching into the auditorium with music, dimmed lights, and balloons dropping from the ceiling. But these are just outward appearances. I do not think the style of an election campaign can just simply be transferred, even if you wanted to do it. On the other hand, we should realize - perhaps for us a bit strange - that in America there is tremendous interest in the personality and character of a candidate, while we focus more on issues and program positions and base our decisions on that.

But, taking a close look, I think interest in the person is not so irrational or unreasonable because the question of whether a specific issue can be judged right or wrong by a candidate is something we cannot fully judge ourselves. But if you can get a good idea of what a person is like, then you can say, I think he can do it or he can't. In other words, the classic question 'would you buy a second-hand car from him,' as a sort of litmus test for trust and confidence in a person, is not so off the mark. Therefore, focusing on the individual - who he is, what kind of person is he, how does he deal with his private surroundings - has something going for it. Of course, we shouldn't fool ourselves: the whole affair is precisely planned and prepared - what will be said, what will be shown, and how the family - which is extensively involved - is integrated into the campaign.

The interview with Ruprecht Polenz was conducted by Christoph Heinemann from German public radio broadcaster, Deutschlandfunk.