Ambitious young men in Germany feel entitled to wonder when a man will ever be chancellor again. They, too, want a role model.
Angela Merkel has been in office for 12 years, the only chancellor many young adults have known. Though the public-opinion polls for her and her conservative Christian Democratic Union have slipped slightly from a 15-point lead a week ago, no one expects a Hillary Clinton upset. (No one expected the Hillary Clinton upset either.) She looks to be coasting to re-election for a fourth term Sunday, leading to idle speculation that if Clinton had acted more like Frau Merkel, she might be president and the most powerful woman in the world.
Clinton blames sexism and misogyny for losing. Merkel is regarded as a woman who has dealt with large men in her party and on the international stage with consummate toughness, refusing the label of "feminist" to rally the troops.
Both men and women in Germany call her "Mutti," meaning "Mommy," though she has no children. "Mutti" was initially a derisive put-down by men who didn't like her politics or her exercise of power, but now it's a term of affection and trust. Clinton suffered from a lingering negative perception of her as "someone's mother-in-law" who achieved power through her husband. Merkel's husband, an eminent scientist, rarely appears with the chancellor and says she relaxes by retreating to the kitchen to cook his favorite dish.
Angela Merkel was the protege of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who called her "mein madchen," or "my girl." And she rose to party secretary-general under his wing. After he lost an election, tainted with scandal in his party, she was his Brutus, wielding a dagger of words in a letter to a newspaper that demanded his resignation. When she took his place as party leader, he said bitterly, "I put the snake on my arm."
Both Merkel and Clinton have had their difficulties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but they have dealt with them differently. In an awkward attempt to improve relations between the United States and Russia in 2009, then-Secretary of State Clinton famously presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red button imprinted with the word "reset." Unfortunately, the translation to Russian was to a word that might have been more to the point: "overload."
In an interview in The New Yorker, Clinton characterized Putin as a "Bond villain." Merkel might privately agree, but she has a different analysis. When she visited Russia in 2007, Putin, aware of the chancellor's fear of dogs from having been bitten by one as a child, brought a big black dog into the room for their meeting. She interpreted this crude attempt to intimidate as an important key to his character. "I understand why he has to do this -- to prove he's a man," she said. "He's afraid of his own weakness."
She has not had to prove that she's a woman -- not in a feminist sense. On a panel on female empowerment with nine powerful women including White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump -- personally invited by the chancellor -- and Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, she was asked by the moderator whether she is a feminist. Women in the audience cried "yes!" The chancellor demurred. "The history of feminism is one where there are similarities with me and then there are differences," she said slowly, weighing her words, aware of public perception and personal identity. "And I also wouldn't want to claim a title I do not even have."
By cultivating neutrality on the issue, she throws men off their game and keeps a focus on policy rather than sex or ideology. Criticisms of her hair and dress don't stick. Her fashion banality may come from having grown up in East Germany, where frumpiness was a virtue.
East Germany defined women as workers, and about 90 percent of East German women worked outside the home when the Berlin Wall came down. Work was a chore, not a choice. Many German women prefer motherhood to a career, and whether they work or work at home, they enjoy "kindergeld," a liberal monthly allowance for each child until the child is 18, with occasional increases promoted by Merkel.
Mutti has endured legitimate criticism for her open-borders immigration policy, and she defended it at the time but no longer pursues it, as the experience and mood of the country have changed. But even those who didn't like it understand that it stemmed from lingering German guilt over Nazi crimes against humanity. She now stands astride the world's fourth largest economy, and many Germans are pleased that a dominant mother figure is in charge of the fatherland. There's no glass ceiling waiting to be shattered.