Indeed, braced for an avalanche of pre-election television advertising, I channel-surfed in vain for a single German campaign commercial, only to be informed that each party is given a set amount of time, based on voter share, on the two public networks. Ads from the two main parties — Merkel’s CDU and the left-of-center Social Democrats — ran eight times on each channel; smaller parties were consigned to four.
The parties can purchase time on private networks as well, but the relative paucity of funds limits such airings; the Merkel ad was slated to run 140 times, while the Obama campaign ran more than 100,000 ads in Ohio alone.
The Merkel ad, by the way, offered a fascinating glimpse of cross-cultural gender politics. With 90 seconds of the chancellor speaking directly to the camera, it featured close-ups of jowls and wrinkles that no female politician in the United States — indeed, that no female politician’s opponent in the United States — would dare risk.
And for U.S. visitors inured to tight security, campaign events here were disconcertingly open; even at Merkel’s final rally, supporters did not have to pass through the metal detectors ubiquitous at American campaign events.
But perhaps the most astonishing for those immersed in the polarized American political landscape is the edges-rounded-off nature of the German political debate. U.S. voters may say they want their politicians to cooperate and compromise, but a system built on party primaries and gerrymandered districts pushes relentlessly toward division.
In theory, a multi-party arrangement accommodates and reflects a wider range of political views. In Merkel’s Germany, it has resulted in a race to the middle — not just in forming a coalition government but in the campaign itself.
Merkel has been so unabashed in co-opting the positions of her opponents that she makes Bill Clinton look like an amateur triangulator. On nuclear energy, long opposed by the Green Party, Merkel, post-Fukushima, abandoned her support. On establishing a national minimum wage, a key difference with Social Democrats, Merkel declined to go that far but endorsed the concept.