They have a history.

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What Clinton Could Learn From Merkel

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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As I watch Hillary Clinton campaign, I can't help comparing her to the leader of the country where I live and write about politics: Chancellor Angela Merkel, the woman who broke through the glass ceiling in a political culture that was, until recently, as male-dominated as the U.S.'s. When it comes to women's rights, Clinton is a more vocal advocate for change -- but she may have something to learn from Merkel.

Clinton and Merkel have much in common. Both are studious, with an A-student mentality that emphasizes being prepared. Both value expertise and trust experts, and neither is known to lead on gut feeling. Both are vocal champions of alternative energy and preventing climate change. Both are opponents of the far right: Clinton has condemned the hatred exhibited by some followers of Donald Trump; Merkel has been a bulwark against the anti-immigrant xenophobia behind the Alternative for Germany party, which has been done well in recent polls and regional elections. Both are hardliners on Russia, which has recently meddled in their countries' domestic affairs.

And both have a compassionate streak. They also share an ability to bridge political divides in pragmatic negotiations, and both are consummate political operators, adept at maneuvering and behind-the-scenes negotiating. 

Even the issues sections on the websites of the Clinton campaign and Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party are structurally alike, though the German site is more orderly. 

The differences between the two, however, may be more striking than the similarities. Their different approach to gender issues may be the most noticeable one. Where Clinton is militantly pro-choice, a promoter of equal pay for equal work, women's rights, marriage equality and women in the military draft, Merkel is quiet or staunchly conservative on all the divisive issues, such as quotas for women in boardrooms or a controversial decision to make emergency contraception prescription-free. She has said gay couples shouldn't call their union marriage. 

Clinton's feminism rubbed Arkansans the wrong way when she was the state's first lady, and it turns off conservative voters today. Merkel has allowed progressive change to happen, but she never spearheaded it. 

Yet it wouldn't be accurate to say Merkel has lacked Clinton's courage to push for change. The German leader has shown a steely determination to do unpopular things that Clinton probably wouldn't have dared to try -- and probably wouldn't attempt as president. 

Merkel's energy transition policy has upended the industry, sending traditional utilities such as RWE and E.ON into a tailspin as subsidy-fattened alternative energy providers gained market share. Their shares plummeted, and they have been forced into painful restructuring. Merkel dealt the traditional players another severe blow in 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear accident, pushing for a total ban on nuclear energy that will take effect in 2022. Clinton talks about promoting sustainable energy and overtaking Germany as the global leader in the field, but has shown no inclination to take on the energy lobby to the extent Merkel has.

Nor would she be likely to do anything matching Merkel's brave decision in 2015 to allow in more than a million refugees from Middle Eastern war zones. Clinton's program calls for comprehensive immigration reform, and she is in favor of bringing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into the U.S. But that may be an empty promise, given the opposition of a Republican Congress, and the refugee program Clinton envisions is far less sweeping than Merkel's. The decision took a heavy political toll on the German leader, and Merkel probably realized her popularity would slide. Nonetheless, even though she has taken steps to reduce the refugee influx, she has never apologized or expressed regret about anything but flaws in the program's execution.

Clinton is more cautious than the German leader. But she is also a less efficient negotiator: The U.S.'s problems in the Middle East stemming from the Arab spring revolutions and the failed "reset" with Russia occurred on her watch as secretary of state. Merkel doesn't have a major failure to her name yet. For all the criticism of the Greek bailouts, the eastern Ukraine cease-fires and the European Union's deal with Turkey on migrants, Merkel has achieved shaky but constructive compromises when disaster seemed impossible to avert.

With Russia, Merkel has taken a tough line by pushing other European nations to impose sanctions on President Vladimir Putin's regime. But although Putin has displayed a visceral dislike of Clinton, which is clearly reciprocal, Merkel has remained on speaking terms with the Russian leader, patiently sitting through long negotiating sessions and achieving results.

It could be argued that Merkel has run Germany for 13 years; Clinton won't even get that much time at the helm. Talented leaders usually trace a steep learning curve, and, if Clinton wins the election, she may be as effective as Merkel in a few years. There is, however, a complicating circumstance: Merkel is overwhelmingly perceived as honest and morally upstanding. Clinton is not.

Neither Merkel nor her husband has exhibited the slightest penchant for luxury. She lives on the solidly upper-middle-class income provided by her government's salary and her husband's professorship. They share an apartment in a not-particularly-chic building in central Berlin and a modest weekend home north of the city. The Clintons have several expensive homes.  Merkel can sometimes be seen shopping in supermarkets, with no guards in sight (Germans don't approach her because to do so would be impolite). It's hard to picture Clinton shopping at Wal-Mart without her vast security detail and entourage. 

The Clintons have achieved substantial wealth since leaving the White House. The recent Wikileaks disclosures have highlighted the methods by which they came by this money. To some, it has the whiff of influence-peddling or the monetization of their vast connections. Germans wouldn't have tolerated this from Merkel or her husband.

Merkel is known for her sense of propriety: 73 percent of Germans say she is honest and is not in politics for her own gain. Only 38 percent of Americans believe Clinton is honest and trustworthy -- a lower percentage than Trump gets.

The German chancellor's lack of self-interest has allowed her to stay personally popular despite all her tough and controversial decisions: She is No. 1 among party leaders, with a 54 percent approval rating. If she decides to run for re-election next year, she is likely to have an easier time of it than Clinton does this year.

Despite her reluctance to be an activist for women, her example has clearly inspired German women and helped them break through in politics. Today, three parties with chances at parliament seats in the next election have women as co-leaders. Two deputy leaders of the Social Democratic Party, the CDU's coalition partner, are women. 

Clinton's anemic popularity numbers probably are an indication that many American women don't consider her a role model whose success would help more of them rise to the top. If she is elected Nov. 8, she won't be as inspiring to women as Merkel has been.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net