Steinmeier sheds dull image with rousing speech
As Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier has delivered many speeches, but none that anyone can particularly remember. Germany’s top diplomat has impeccable credentials yet has rarely come close to stirring anyone with his balanced, cautious, usually dry and sometimes rather dull addresses. No one would ever think of ticking the box “rousing speaker” next to his name.
That all changed on Saturday — when Steinmeier gave the speech of his life to a congress of his centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). The 500 delegates interrupted the white-haired lawyer’s riveting 88-minute address with applause 114 times. They then elected Steinmeier, who had never won election for any public office, as their candidate for the 2009 election with 95 percent of the vote.
By brilliantly latching on to the dominant issue of the moment — the global financial crisis — Steinmeier told the SPD delegates who have suffered post-war record lows in opinion polls this year and are worrying about their own job security in next year’s elections that it is the SPD more than any other party that is ideally positioned to benefit from the banking crisis. The SPD has long pushed for more state controls, he reminded them, and always stood up to protect the proverbial “little guy”.
“Let’s close our flanks, let’s not settle for second place but rather let’s fight for the victory next year,” Steinmeier told the delegates, who gave him a five-minute standing ovation for the fiery address.
It was also more than the usual vague piddle-paddle that German leaders often offer up. Steinmeier, until now seen more aligned to the conservative wing of the SPD, gave the party’s left plenty to cheer about. He spoke out clearly against extending nuclear power, unambiguously endorsed Gesine Schwan as the party’s candidate for the office of president even though SPD conservatives would prefer her withdrawal, and promised new government spending to boost the economy.
“People are looking to us to lead them through the crisis and we can do it. We’ve buried our differences. We believe in ourselves again and that’s making us strong. At critical moments we’ve been the ones that provided the answers.” Before Saturday the SPD had been a party in disarray. They had struggled to make their mark with voters. Trailing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats by about 10 points in opinion polls, the party has been deeply frustrated, fed up with Merkel getting much of the credit for the achievements of their grand coalition.
“I was extremely impressed with his speech,” said former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who sat cheering Steinemeier in the front row with another ex SPD chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. An accolyte of Schroeder’s, Steinmeier served as his chief of staff. Before Saturday, he was seen as a steady pair of hands, holding an office (foreign minister) that almost automatically makes him one of the country’s most popular leaders. Before Saturday he was respected, admired perhaps.
He has now added a new attribute to his résumé: “rousing speaker”.