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'Common ground'

September 6, 2012

The General Secretary of the German Social Democrats, Andrea Nahles, was at the Democratic National Convention. She's rooting for Obama and warns that a President Romney could drive Europe and the US apart.

Delegates applaud during the Convention REUTERS/Jim Young
Image: Reuters

Deutsche Welle: Ms. Nahles, you're getting the chance to observe the convention close up - what ideas are you going to take home from here?

Andrea Nahles: One thing I like very much is that we're experiencing a very united Democratic Party, which really wants to defend a modern America against the reactionary impulse which is coming from the Republicans all over the country. I shall take with me the fact that there's a strong commitment to equal opportunities and fair wages, and that there's now quite a lot of common ground with the German Social Democrats - which wasn't always the case - and that we're coming together globally, which no doubt has something to do with the global financial crisis.

And what about tactics? Can you imagine a three-day convention such as the one being put on here being put on in Germany?

Most of our party conferences are three days long, and are also well-structured. Obviously we're somewhat innocent when it comes to the kind of staging we see here in the US, and that would be seen in Germany as rather artificial. What we can see though, is that [the Democrats] have a marvelous level of mobilization at the grass roots and far better feedback from the bottom up to the campaign leadership.

The people in the campaign leadership know pretty well what's going on in Ohio or Texas, and that's something I think is very good. But also the way the Democrats deal with their activists, those who represent the party to the public: there's a lot of recognition, a lot of praise, a lot of motivation. With us, election campaigning is often just a duty. That's got to change a bit, because people are giving up their time, their leisure. People in Germany have much less time nowadays, partly because there are more demands made on them in their working life. I think we can learn something from this culture of recognition, and I'd like to implement that in Germany.

Does that mean the campaign has to become more emotional?

I think there's a limit to that in Germany, which here in the US they are always crossing. People don't want to see their politicians doing a striptease of their souls. What I find great is the way they show people and stories which are genuine. People's problems are laid out clearly for the voters. I think that's good and emotion plays a major role in that. But it also shows what the campaign is really about. So why not have more of that in the rather dry German election campaign, which sometimes comes across as being all about the head and not the heart.

Michelle Obama at the Convention REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
The convention's staging may be too much for German tastesImage: Reuters

Looking at social policy - that's the big issue in both Germany and the US. How close on that are the Democrats and the Social Democrats?

Well, the social systems are different, but it's very clear that there have been plenty of discussions about the health system and how far lobbyists make it difficult or impossible to carry out reform for the benefit of the majority, both in the US as well as in Germany. There are also discussions about how to deal with the powerful cartels of the big enterprises - that's another problem we share. I've been asked a lot about short-time working: the idea of the state supporting reduced working hours in a crisis is something the Americans find incredibly innovative, even though it's nothing new in Germany. But it worked very well in 2008, and I'm always being grilled on how it worked, and what we did. So in that respect, interestingly enough, the question often comes up: "How do you do things in Germany?"

In their campaign, the Republicans present Europe as a kind of bogey-man - have you found that too in your talks with conservatives?

Republicans have in general a greater distance to Europe; they think they're all secret socialists there because they have a different understanding of the role of the state. They see a slimmed down federal state as the right thing. I think that throughout Europe there are simply different expectations as to what the state should do. People want the state to regulate things, to ensure fair conditions, to deal with things - and that's what most of the Republicans don't want. That's a huge difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.

What's your sense of the political climate between the Democrats and the Republicans?

The political climate in the US is completely poisonous. The election campaigns get tougher, there's an increasing amount of personal attack. That's a road that I hope we never go down in Germany or in Europe.

You've met the head of the Democratic campaign - is there something the Americans could learn from the Germans?

I think the Americans envy us our membership structure, the way we don't just recruit volunteers who work for a given period of time. They can do that very, very well - much better than we can - but it costs a huge effort every time to put that all together. They are interested in how one can bind members to the party, how one can support them, build a structure which works over a longer period than just one campaign. They've asked me a lot of questions about how we organize that. I think they're considering that they perhaps need more stability in the future, in order to be able to run such campaigns successfully. So in that sense we are moving together. We want to activate more people who are not members, and they want more people who don't just commit themselves for one campaign, but who commit themselves regularly. So the two things fit well together.

Nahles says Democrats and Social Democrats can learn from each otherImage: DW

Could you imagine that there could be primaries in Germany, as a way of choosing the candidate for the Chancellor?

Yes, I could imagine that. In the SPD party reform last year, we introduced the possibility of having ballots, and we've done it in the past. But I'm not yet sure if I would like to see that in 2012. I'd rather find a consensus, and that we announce a joint candidate. But if that's what the party wants, if that's a widespread wish, then we'd do that. But I don't think that's likely in 2012.

Back to the campaign in America: you've said you're rooting for Barack Obama. How important is it that he should be reelected, especially for transatlantic relations?

I think it's very important. I see the debate here as being about a modern America which is open to the world, and which pays more attention to the international level. And that, for me, is the Obama administration, Obama himself. On the other side, I see a Romney administration in which the Tea Party could well have a big influence. We can't want that: that would only drive Europe and the US further apart. I think the economic crisis can only be conquered jointly, so, if at all possible, we shouldn't allow the gap between Europe and the US to get any wider. Mitt Romney was in Europe and made a disastrous impression. I didn't imagine that he would have so little sensitivity. It was a total surprise - and, as a result, most Germans, and of course most Social Democrats, are rooting for Obama.

Andrea Nahles is General Secretary of the main German opposition party, the Social Democrats (SPD), and a member of the Bundestag. She's currently in the US taking part in an International Leaders Forum and attended the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Interview: Christina Bergmann, Charlotte / mll