What Can Angela Merkel Tell Us About Hillary Clinton?

On the night of the historic nomination of Hillary Clinton as the first female presidential candidate from a major political party, I keep thinking about another female trailblazer who has arguably done just as much as Secretary Clinton when it comes to the advancement of women at the top tier of politics: German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Despite the fact that she has been in office for over 10 years, I knew very little about her until I read George Packer’s excellent profile of her a few days ago (yes, the article is from 2014, but it had been languishing in my Pocket queue until now). Obviously, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between her and Clinton as I read the article. I kept thinking about how her particular style of leadership might shed some light into how Clinton might lead if she gets elected.

Now, before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that all women are the same or that I believe you can look at one female leader’s behavior and extrapolate how they’ll all behave. One would never make that argument for men (George W. Bush and Barack Obama were clearly very different). There are, however, obvious differences between men and women. Differences that include how they tend to lead others. Therefore, looking at Angela Merkel, particularly the things that struck me as interesting and “feminine” about her leadership style, might be a good proxy for thinking about how Hillary Clinton might behave as President.

“She has a strong value of freedom, and everything else is negotiable.”

This is the one line from that entire article that most stuck with me. It’s a quote from Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the leader of the German Green Party, describing Merkel. The thing that struck me most was that it wasn’t clear to me whether it was supposed to be a compliment or a criticism. In trying to figure out why, I realized that, from the perspective of American politics, there are two contradictory messages here.

The first part of the quote is clearly a compliment. Who doesn’t love freedom? You would never hear someone say “you have a strong value of freedom” as an insult.

The second part of the quote, however, reads as criticism. Suggesting that someone’s values are “negotiable” is a pretty straight-forward jab in the political arena. Parker touches on this briefly, stating that “Americans don’t like to think of our leaders as having no higher principles.” It’s true. Just ask Mitt Romney how the whole “flip-flopper” thing worked out for him.

But why? Why do we frown upon politicians who change their positions on some issues? After all, aren’t politicians supposed to represent the will of the people? If the American electorate can change it’s mind about an issue, why can’t politicians do the same? In 1996, only 27% of Americans believed that gay marriage should be legal. In 2016, over 60% do. Clearly a few people changed their minds. Still, Hillary Clinton has taken a lot of heat over the fact that she was opposed to gay marriage before she was for it.

This to me is one of the keys to Merkel’s success in Germany. She is highly attuned to public opinion and usually only takes clear positions when they are aligned with what people want. Here in the U.S., we would normally decry that as opportunism and flip-flopping.

I wonder, is this tendency to be more malleable by public opinion a characteristic likelier to be found in a female politician? I’ve heard a lot about Clinton’s “listening tours” and how she is great at hearing other people out before she makes a decision. It’s not something we really tend to hear about men these days.

Dealing with “Machismo”

Another subject that the article on Merkel touches a few times is her remarkable ability to deal with the “machismo” exhibited by her male counterparts. From how she’s dealt with everyone from people within her own party to Vladimir Putin, it seems that she essentially eats “machos” for breakfast.

While I’m sure that any woman at — or aspiring to — a certain level of leadership has to learn how to deal with men and our egos, doing so at the level of world leaders is clearly a whole other ballgame. As such, I would expect that when someone finds a playbook that works, others will follow it.

Merkel seems to have figured out how to neutralize, and sometimes even take advantage of, the “machismo” and ego of her male counterparts. It seems to be a combination of an unbelievably thick skin, a quick wit, and the patience to essentially let the men dig their own graves. Packer tells the story of how, on the night when Merkel was first elected Chancellor, she was on a television panel discussing the election with Gerard Schröder, the incumbent. The results were too close to call but Schröder claimed victory and came across as overly confident and even dismissive of Merkel. She apparently just sat back and watched Schröder embarrass himself when, at the end of the night, Merkel’s party ended up with more votes.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of Clinton’s highest approval ratings came during her tenure as Secretary of State. As the nation’s top diplomat, she basically had to navigate a world dominated by male egomaniacs. She seems to have succeeded, at least in part, by following a similar playbook to Merkel’s and forgoing boasts and braggadocio in favor of patient, quiet calculation. One can only assume she would employ the same tactics as President.