Germans Look to US for Campaign Tips | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.08.2004
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Germans Look to US for Campaign Tips

German politicians back from a study trip to the Democrats' national convention in Boston are ready to swap notes, hoping campaign enhancements will better their chances at regional polls in September.


Balloons, family and prime-time viewing -- an option for Germany?

Even to the untrained eye, the balloon-filled, song and dance, with the occasional prime-time speech thrown in, resembled more of a tightly scripted celebration than what most Germans would call an election campaign.

But that didn't stop Guido Westerwelle, leader of Germany's opposition neo-liberal Free Democrats (FDP), from taking notes while in Boston.

Guido Westerwelle mit Mehr Inhalt

Guido Westerwelle, head of the FDP holds a bag with the slogan "More content" at the beginning of the FDP party in Germany in May 2002.

Back in Germany, the politician, whose party has made a name for itself through unorthodox campaign tactics, said the convention "was almost like a school lesson."

Spicing up a dull affair

There certainly is a different feel on the floor of a US convention compared to the closed-in auditoriums packed with hardcore party members where Germans hold their election conferences -- events most voters experience for less than a minute during the nightly news.

Although German parties try to inject some flair into campaigns by handing out clever giveaways like ice scrapers ("For a clear view, vote FDP") and condoms ("A safe future with CDU "), or by hiring media advisors to spice up their popular image with posters and commercials, they pale in comparison to their American counterparts when it comes to campaign rallies. In Germany these are more often than not drab affairs punctuated by lengthy party platform speeches in gray town squares.

Westerwelle was not alone in looking at the United States for examples of how to give German party politics a face- lift.

Einigung auf Zuwanderungsgesetz Reinhard Bütikofer

Reinhard Bütikofer

Reinhard Bütikofer, co-chair of the Green party, along with five colleagues, paid close attention to what the Democrats were doing in Boston. His own party, the junior partner in the German government's coalition, has enjoyed a significant jump in popularity ratings recently, and Bütikofer is eager to hold on to that edge in upcoming regional and state elections -- four such are scheduled for September.

Learning from America

In an interview with Der Spiegel newsmagazine earlier this week, he said attending the Democratic convention opened up a whole field of questions a campaign manager could address in the upcoming months and years.

John Kerry und John Edwards nominiert

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, left, and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, clasp hands at the close of the Democratic National Convention in Boston

"One can learn a lot from the Americans," said Bütikofer, who showed up in Boston wearing an "Environment 2004" button. The fact that US politicians don't get bogged down in detailed discussions about the intricacies of a tax reform, for instance, is something the Greens leader favors. Instead, he said, they focus on short and sweeping messages, extolling values, goals, and visions.

Bütikofer believes those are things Germans can talk about too, as long as they remain non-committal. They don't argue over the €10 quarterly fee for doctor's visits, they hold up slogans like "America can do better," he said noting the differences.

Is it really so far-fetched to imagine the Greens hiring a big-name film director to shoot a documentary on, say, Joschka Fischer's rebellious student years, or that hundreds of red, gold and black balloons could rain down at the next party gathering?

Message control

Another German hoping to play catch-up in Boston thinks it's feasible. Matthias Machnig from Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats (SPD) told Der Spiegel that the key is "message control," keeping a tight hold on the campaign and steering it the right way. Machnig was influential in helping to "Amerikanize" the last two federal campaigns in 2002 and 1998, which the SPD won.

The American spin doctor Dick Morris, who managed Bill Clinton's elections and has advised numerous politicians in Europe, saw the situation a little differently back in 2002, when the incumbent SPD just squeezed past the conservative opposition Christian Democrats. In an interview ahead of the federal elections in September of that year, Morris told DW-WORLD that German politicians did indeed need to learn from the Americans, but that the lesson was not one of style, rather content.

Dick Morris

Former presidential advisor Dick Morris

"The campaigns in the United States usually represent candidates with sharply different points of view," Morris said at the time. In Germany, however, politicians "run for the same space and that makes the election fairly dull." It also means, he added, that "neither of them can get a decisive advantage against the other."

From practice to reality

As for Westerwelle and Bütikofer, both of whose parties have their eyes set on helping to build future government coalitions, the Democratic convention in Boston served another more immediate purpose: sizing up the next possible US president.

Whereas Bütikofer, who was thoroughly impressed with the Democrats, told German media John Kerry would win the elections in November and signal a change in Washington's international policies, Guido Westerwelle was less impressed with the candidate's chances.

The FDP leader, who has attended 20 US party conventions, said "American foreign policy will not change," and predicted that George W. Bush would stay on for another four years.

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