Published September 19, 2013
BERLIN – Peer Steinbrueck knows the view from the heights of German politics: Over four decades, he's worked at the chancellery, run the country's most populous state and helped steer Germany through the 2008 financial crisis as finance minister.
Getting to the top in his own right, however, is proving tricky for the 66-year-old Social Democrat — a sometimes impatient, even abrasive figure with a self-proclaimed penchant for plain speaking.
He has tried to harness that quality in his bid to unseat popular conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, who favors a consensual — opponents would say indecisive — approach to running Germany.
"What is needed is a government that is led, that doesn't go around in circles as has happened over the past four years," he said as he opened his only television debate of the campaign with Merkel.
"Don't let yourselves be lulled to sleep," the center-left challenger told viewers.
Steinbrueck's mentor, former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, says he has what it takes to run the country — and win elections. Schmidt said two years ago that Steinbrueck "has a particular ability to win the confidence and thus the votes of people who don't consider themselves particularly left-wing."
The truth is, however, that Steinbrueck has yet to prove that with an electoral triumph of his own, and his cultivation of a plain-speaking image has at times raised questions over his judgment. A week before the election, a magazine printed a photo of him holding out his middle finger in response to a question about gaffes in his campaign — a gesture opponents said was unworthy of a would-be chancellor.
Steinbrueck "is somewhat lacking in emotional warmth" and also was thrust into the election campaign without "professional preparation," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.
All the same, he has a full political resume. From 1978 to 1981, Steinbrueck was an assistant responsible for research and technology issues at Schmidt's chancellery. After a stint at West Germany's diplomatic mission in East Berlin, he held a string of federal and state administrative jobs before going into government in Schleswig-Holstein state.
He later served as finance minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, before inheriting the governor's job in 2002 from an incumbent who joined then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's national government.
Steinbrueck lost the state in 2005 amid a backlash against welfare and labor-market reforms introduced by Schroeder — ending his party's 39-year grip on Germany's industrial heartland. The shock prompted Schroeder to force an early national election, which brought Merkel to power in a "grand coalition" of left and right with the Social Democrats.
Steinbrueck then became finance minister. In 2008, he and Merkel combined to lead Germany's response to the crisis surrounding the collapse of Lehman Brothers, reassuring Germans at the height of the ensuing meltdown that all private bank savings were safe. And he was an architect of Germany's "debt brake," which will force the country to cut back borrowing over the coming years — a rule touted by Merkel as an example for others in Europe.
Steinbrueck also showed an undiplomatic streak, calling in 2009 for governments to use "the whip" against neighboring Switzerland in a long-running dispute over Germans' undeclared assets in Swiss banks, and saying the Alpine nation faced the threat of the "cavalry."
This year, he drew mixed reviews for declaring that "two clowns" won Italy's election — a reference to comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo and scandal-scarred ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi. Italy's president called off a meeting in protest.
He also drew criticism for his high earnings on the public-speaking circuit after he left government in 2009.
Steinbrueck has an uneasy history with his party, much of which is more left-wing than he is. While in government, he remarked that the public perceived some Social Democrats as "crybabies" in the face of Merkel's popularity.
Now it's Steinbrueck's turn to crack that problem.