Cablegate: Kurt Beck: Profile of a Pragmatic Social Democrat

Published: Mon 9 Jul 2007 10:42 AM
DE RUEHFT #3223/01 1901042
R 091042Z JUL 07
E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Kurt Beck: Profile of a Pragmatic Social Democrat
REF: a) 06 Frankfurt 2605, b) 06 Frankfurt 2124
Sensitive but unclassified; not for internet distribution.
1. (SBU) SUMMARY. Social Democratic/SPD national chairman and
Rheinland-Pfalz Minister-President Kurt Beck rose to power as a
centrist leader combining political bridge-building with charm
appeal to a working-class and often rural base. Having achieved
prominence via hard work and charisma rather than family heritage,
education, or ideology, his motto appears to be "only success
succeeds" (embracing whatever position is likely to carry the day).
As leader of a fractured party and head of Germany's only
SPD-majority state, however, Beck seems aware that he has few
effective allies as a potential national leader. END SUMMARY.
Beck's Coming of Age: True Blue
2. (SBU) Beck has bonafide working-class roots that should feed his
"man of the people" appeal to tabloid-reading Germans. The son of a
brick-mason, Beck dropped out of school to apprentice as an
electrician (at a German Army radio-repair facility), later earning
a high-school diploma through night classes. Beck's wife Roswitha,
a hairdresser, is known for keeping her salon job even after two
decades of public life.
3. (SBU) His regional roots run deep as well. Beck and family still
live in the small town (Steinfeld) where he grew up and served as
mayor. Beck likes to say he wastes no time in Berlin after meetings
there, grabbing the first flight home. Until 2006, Beck had
consistently waved off any notion of national ambitions and still
keeps monthly office hours where he talks one-on-one with
constituents. He makes a point of attending the state's many wine
festivals, where he connects well with locals.
4. (SBU) Beck rose in the local SPD in part through the union
movement and later by embodying a centrist alternative to the
conservative void left by Helmut Kohl's move to national politics
(Kohl also hails from Rheinland-Pfalz). Rather than storming to
power on an ideological wave, Beck worked systematically in his
structurally conservative state to charm colleagues and prove his
ability to build coalitions and enact policies. Beck's third state
election victory in March 2006 (ref B) -- giving the state SPD an
absolute majority despite a national defeat six months earlier --
clinched Beck's title as reigning SPD heavyweight and paved the way
for him to become the party's national chairman (a position he was
reportedly offered in 2005, but declined in order to focus on state
Political Foundations
5. (SBU) Beck was identified in the early '90s with the "Third Way"
movement in the SPD, which sought to modernize the party's message
and used centrist appeals to business and to socially-conservative
lower-income voters as the means to put social democrats back in
power (former Chancellor Schroeder also made this a hallmark).
Defeating the CDU in Kohl's home state in 1994 (four years before
Schroeder came to power nationally), Beck largely stuck to his
centrist pledges -- in part through a successful twelve-year
coalition with the liberal/pro-market Free Democrats. His economic
record of limited but active government (again, a "Third Way"
characteristic) featured lower unemployment and higher growth than
many other German states, many of Germany's first all-day schools
(key to promoting women's workforce participation and boosting the
birthrate), and successful adjustment to the closure of dozens of
U.S. military installations (and the loss of an estimated 100,000
jobs). At home, he enjoys remarkably broad approval among
supporters of the opposition CDU.
6. (SBU) Germany's longest-serving state leader, Beck gained respect
nationally and across party aisles as a strong negotiator and
consensus-builder on issues in the Bundesrat (Germany's upper
house). His national policy successes included expanding dual
citizenship for foreigners born in Germany (1999) and the 2000 tax
7. (SBU) Beck in Rheineland-Pfalz is seen as a centrist, workaholic,
and patient problem-solver. He downplays his personal ambition,
cultivating an image as a selfless public servant. Long-time
opponents say they find it hard to attack him, since he is not a
polarizing figure in state politics and does not flaunt his
ambition, yet has won a stature that puts him above the fray at
least in his own state and party. Beck is also a highly competent
debater on topics where he has strong knowledge; he can disarm an
opponent while appealing to the viewer at large. When dealing with
staff, however, he can reportedly be short-fused and demanding.
8. (SBU) Beck has had limited and mixed experience on foreign
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affairs. His government is a steadfast supporter of the extensive
U.S. forces located in the state, offering in-kind support wherever
possible. Those bases (and their economic contribution), along with
the 2005 presidential visit to state capital Mainz, served as
reminders of the importance of good transatlantic ties -- however,
Beck often delegated the handling of those ties (to Deputy
Minister-President/MinInt Karl Peter Bruch). Beck professes
affinity for America, particularly for partner state South Carolina.
But he does not speak English and does not seem to look to the U.S.
as an economic, social, or political model.
Can He Appeal to a National Audience?
9. (SBU) Beck's greatest apparent stumbling block in his fourteen
months as SPD national chairman (and presumptive future candidate
for chancellor) is his limited appeal to or ability to connect with
Germans across the country where the "hometown" factor is absent --
documented in a series of dismal polls. The period also coincides
with strong showings by globe-trotting Chancellor Merkel and Foreign
Minister Steinmeier (SPD) -- in a country that "loves its foreign
ministers" (in the words of a regional SPD politician). If Beck's
national polling remains weak in the longer term, his presumptive
candidacy for chancellor in 2009 could fade, but he will remain
unchallenged in Rheinland-Pfalz until 2011. Beck's wife reportedly
does not want to move to Berlin, which (if true) could be a barrier
to Beck's political ambition
10. (SBU) Since Beck is not a polarizing figure, opponents find him
more vulnerable on his lack of experience rather than on his
ideology. Beck's relative inexperience on foreign affairs also has
led him into several gaffes over the past year, for instance his
suggestion that "moderate" Taliban should be part of a dialogue on
reconciliation in Afghanistan. Like many other German political
leaders, he is more strident when wearing his "party hat" (i.e. on
the national stage or when speaking to the party faithful) -- than
he is as Minister-President or behind closed doors. Beck's public
opposition to U.S. missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech
Republic may be intended to stem the desertion of the SPD left wing
to the new Left Party and to distinguish the SPD from the CDU in the
lead-up to Bundestag elections (2009 at the latest).
11. (SBU) Despite his present poor standing, Beck remains a force.
He is a successful manager -- with a detail-oriented but apparently
less authoritarian style than Schroeder -- who as party chairman is
seeking to promote other leadership figures (for example by thinning
the ranks of deputy chairpersons while enhancing their status).
However, the SPD is in serious trouble at present, faced by
declining membership and increasing competition from the Left Party.
Beck remains undeniably likable behind closed doors and on camera,
but he has not thus far shown the skills needed to transform the SPD
by moving it clearly toward the center to win votes from the CDU/CSU
or to the left, to restore its appeal to a disillusioned left-wing.
COMMENT: Patience May Not Have Its Virtues
12. (SBU) Some say that Beck (like Chancellor Merkel during her
period as opposition leader) continues to enjoy the advantage of
being underestimated by those, largely from outside his home region,
who see him as too tied to a rural state or not savvy enough to lead
the SPD (and Germany) effectively. Others say that Beck is more
ambitious than he appears, and could make deeper changes to improve
the SPD's (and his own) poll figures. So far, though, Beck has
shown himself a steady hand rather than a turnaround artist.
13. (SBU) Faced with the SPD's decline and a popular chancellor,
Beck's reliance on patient bridge-building must bear more fruit over
the coming year than the past year, or he will come under intense
fire from within the party's ranks. If that happens, Beck always
has a return ticket to Mainz.
14. This cable was coordinated with Embassy Berlin.
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