Joe Biden’s defense of his choice to leave Afghanistan gets more vehement with each speech he delivers. Every passing day might confirm that it was a bad decision with worse implementation; nevertheless, the president refuses to give an inch. He decided and, for better or worse, the rest of us have to live with the consequences.
While Biden has taken a hit in the polls, it’s likely that he will emerge stronger from this moment. Not because the withdrawal has enhanced his reputation for competence or good sense, which it hasn’t. But because Biden seems to have stumbled on the only formula that protects moderate leaders in a populist age: decisiveness.
Across the Atlantic, the world’s longest-surviving political moderate will retire this month. Chancellor Angela Merkel has steered Germany and Europe for 16 years, and it is easy to think of the former chemist as cautious and technocratic. Surely the politician whose trademark is the restrained and perfectly balanced hand gesture known as the Merkel-Raute has succeeded because of her prudence?
Perhaps not. What has really set Merkel apart from most of her peers has been her willingness to make risky decisions and force others to stick by them.
During the eurozone crisis, she ensured that northern Europe would not protect the improvident south; during the pandemic, she chose the opposite course. She famously decided to open Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015 — and, even when this proved both difficult to manage and politically unpopular, she refused to back down. “I made my decision based on what I thought was right from a political and humanitarian standpoint,” she later declared. “I’d make all the important decisions of 2015 the same way again.”
And then there’s her decision, after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2010, to wean Germany off nuclear energy. The move reversed the policy with which her party had just won an election and it has been a disaster for the climate; in the years that followed the shuttering of the nuclear plants that provided a quarter of Germany’s power, the country’s dependence on coal grew. Even today, Germany doesn’t plan to close its last coal-burning plant until 2038.
To get a sense of how unfortunate the consequences of this decision have been, it’s worth noting that coal-loving Donald Trump’s term as president saw the U.S. close coal plants twice as fast as “climate chancellor” Merkel’s Germany. And yet she has no regrets: Merkel declared at a news conference in July, “I still believe that, in the long term, nuclear energy isn’t a sustainable form of energy production.” She even dared a successor to reverse her decision: “For Germany, the die is cast.”
Whether Merkel’s decisions were right or wrong isn’t what matters. (If you’re keeping score, she was right on bailouts, wrong on nuclear power, right on refugees.) It doesn’t even matter if those decisions were popular with voters. (Shuttering nuclear plants was; welcoming refugees wasn’t.) What matters is that people knew that, when it mattered, Merkel was capable of making a tough and controversial decision.
This is what set her apart from the Third Way centrists who came before and after her. The Tony Blair-Bill Clinton generation developed a reputation for calibrated policy shifts that had been focus-grouped and opinion-polled to within an inch of their life. Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s most famous guide to governance was also a spur to inaction: “Don’t do stupid s—.”
Merkel’s choices, Germans recognized, might have been disagreeable and they might not even have been wise. But they were her own — and at least their chancellor was doing something. French President Emmanuel Macron, fighting off objections to his vaccine mandates, has developed something of this energy toward the end of his term. Perhaps that’s why he still has a chance of re-election.
Populist leaders offer their followers the constant high of simple, formulaic policy pronouncements that may never make a difference in the real world. (That wall never got built on the Mexico border, remember?) They make it sound as though they are constantly issuing strong-minded decrees, even when all they’re actually doing is playing golf or posing for pictures.
The thoughtful, cautious centrist is going to look colorless by comparison — even when faced with obvious incompetence and buffoonery. If you don’t believe me, compare Labour Party leader Keir Starmer’s poll numbers to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s in Britain.
Biden and Merkel are very different people. But Biden will probably survive his Afghanistan disaster for the same reason that Merkel held power so long: At least it’s his disaster. Obama’s vice-president has discovered his own secret for success: “Do stuff, even if it’s stupid.”-Bloomberg