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Angela's Ashes

In early September, while passing through the Frankfurt airport, I watched a press conference on TV in which the German Social Democrats rolled out their new leadership team and set their course for national elections a year later. The mood was somber, almost suicidal. These gray-haired, dour men seemed to be offering themselves up as human sacrifices before the juggernaut of Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats. Polls only underlined that impression: Merkel was riding high.

What a difference three months can make. Of all Europe’s leaders, no one has suffered from the economic crisis quite as much as Merkel, because no one has mishandled the crisis quite as badly as Merkel. Germany is facing its biggest economic challenge since World War II--the Bundesbank is predicting GDP to shrink by at least, 0.8 percent in 2009; many think that's overly optimistic--and economists, politicians, media and the public across the spectrum are calling for tax cuts and stimulus spending of the sort being rolled out in France and other EU states.

But Merkel prefers to play the Dutch uncle--er, aunt--in this situation, telling a recent party congress that the crisis called not for government action but personal belt-tightening. Doing her best Jimmy Carter impression, she told the German parliament that her goal “is not to overcome the crisis" but "to build a bridge so that we at least can start recovering in 2010."

Needless to say, her stance is unpopular. “The hour of the Chancellor has chimed, but Merkel is behaving as though she hasn't heard the gong,” wrote Der Spiegel. Joschka Fischer, the former Green Party foreign minister, said "Europe's largest economy is giving the impression that it is now acting in a purely national way--no longer in a European way." Even the Christian Democrats’ sister party, the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union, has lashed out at the chancellor.

Merkel isn’t doomed yet, if only because the hapless Social Democrats have yet to take advantage of the situation. But her numbers are taking a beating: A poll this week only 52 percent of voters felt "Merkel will ensure an economic upturn in Germany,” down from 69 percent a year ago.

But the real risk is that Merkel is destroying Germany’s near-hegemonic role in European affairs. It’s not just economic. On a variety of political issues, where once Germany could be expected to assert a multilateral leadership role, she has chosen a meandering unilateral path instead: Allowing vast exceptions for German industry on climate regulations, refusing to take a strong stand against Russia, and dragging her feet on Iranian sanctions. Instead of working with Sarkozy and others on an EU-wide economic response, she’s criticized their fiscal stimulus plans. Paris and London aren’t taking her intransigence lying down: The UK’s Gordon Brown has called an emergency economic summit of European leaders for Monday. Not on the invite list? Angela Merkel.

When she came into office, fans said she would be Germany’s Margaret Thatcher. Now she’s looking more and more like Germany’s Herbert Hoover.

--Clay Risen