Testing State Leaders in a Pandemic: The Rise of Andrew Cuomo and Markus Söder

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.



Steve Szabo

Stephen F. Szabo

Senior Fellow

Dr. Stephen F. Szabo is a Senior Fellow at AICGS, where he focuses on German foreign and security policies and the new German role in Europe and beyond. Until June 1, he was the Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy, a Washington, DC, based forum for research and dialogue between scholars, policy experts, and authors from both sides of the Atlantic. Prior to joining the German Marshall Fund in 2007, Dr. Szabo was Interim Dean and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and taught European Studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He served as Professor of National Security Affairs at the National War College, National Defense University (1982-1990). He received his PhD in Political Science from Georgetown University and has been a fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the American Academy in Berlin, as well as serving as Research Director at AICGS. In addition to SAIS, he has taught at the Hertie School of Governance, Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Virginia. He has published widely on European and German politics and foreign policies, including. The Successor Generation: International Perspectives of Postwar Europeans, The Diplomacy of German Unification, Parting Ways: The Crisis in the German-American Relationship, and Germany, Russia and the Rise of Geo-Economics.

“Never let a crisis go to waste.” So think many politicians when opportunities emerge to amplify their reputations. The truth is that crises do help politicians and voters to separate out differences between those actors who are capable of delivering results or those engaged in mere posturing.

The pandemic is now a serious litmus test for political figures around the world seeking to demonstrate their leadership skills. In both the U.S. and Germany, two federal democracies, we are seeing both national and state government leaders emerge as key figures in confronting COVID-19. State leaders—including Bavaria’s Markus Söder and New York’s Andrew Cuomo—are coping with the needs of their own constituencies while federal authorities are trying to coordinate a national response. Both groups know they need to be in close cooperation to achieve their goals. But there are elections scheduled this year in the U.S. and next year in Germany and they are adding an additional incentive for ambitious politicians to distinguish themselves amid this crisis in the minds of voters, whether now or later.

Federal Gridlock Pushes Governors to the Forefront of Pandemic and Politics

In the U.S., the election in November has begun to circle around the expected race between the incumbent Donald Trump and the Democratic challenger Joe Biden. Yet in dealing with the COVID-19 challenge, the lack of leadership and clarity from the White House has left the governors of individual states facing the crisis without adequate support from Washington. The gridlock in Congress, after initial cooperation, has left that branch of government caught up in bickering on both sides of Capitol Hill while the situation in many states worsens. Individual governors have been forced to search for solutions on their own without a viable federal framework for dealing with the crisis. No matter who wins the election on November 3, these governors, depending on how they deal with this crisis, are emerging as nationally known figures and we may see them become contenders for higher office in the coming years.

Who Will Lead the CDU Post-Pandemic?

In Germany, the political arena looks somewhat different. The next elections are scheduled for September 2021. Angela Merkel will presumably not be running for a fifth term. The individuals seeking her job in the CDU ranks—Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz, and Norbert Röttgen—have the rest of this year to make their case before the next CDU party convention in December. At that point, the party will also need to decide who will start the new year as their chancellor candidate. As we have argued earlier, there is a great deal of speculation that a fourth potential candidate, Markus Söder of Bavaria, might want to throw his hat in the ring. The CDU campaigns with the CSU (Söder’s party, which he heads) and there have been the two instances where CSU candidates were chosen to be the joint candidate for both parties: Franz Josef Strauss in 1980 and Edmund Stoiber in 2002. The questions that need to be raised are: why Söder and why Söder now?

One can assume that the election in Germany next year will be heavily influenced by the outcome of the pandemic or its ongoing impact plus the state of the economy at that point. That is a very difficult prediction to make at this point as we head into a major economic turndown with unpredictable consequences. Laschet and Söder head the two most populous states in the country, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and Bavaria, and Merz and Röttgen are also from NRW. Depending on how each state looks a year from now, one of those men could look like a winner for the election campaign. The CDU/CSU will emerge from the pandemic as the strongest party, currently polling around 40 percent.

Will Voters Choose Party or Politician?

There are two other factors to consider. One is the depletion of party loyalty in Germany. The ties between voter and party are not as strong as they once were. As in other democracies, the individual candidate has become even more influential than party identification. That was true of Strauss in 1980, although less so for Stoiber in 2002 despite Stoiber having lost by only a total of 6,000 votes. The other factor is the perception of a candidate who will have to embody both change after sixteen years of the Merkel era and a sense of new enthusiasm. That happened in 1998 when Gerhard Schröder defeated Helmut Kohl, also after sixteen years. The result then was an SPD-Green coalition.

The candidate to succeed Merkel will need to avoid being seen as “more Merkel” and must offer something refreshingly new.

The candidate to succeed Merkel will need to avoid being seen as “more Merkel” and must offer something refreshingly new. There is widespread discontent over the “Merkelization” of the CDU as she pulled the party to the left and in doing so, helped to open the door to the rise of the far-right AfD. Laschet might be seen as representing more Merkel given his long service within the party, while Merz could argue that he brings new perspectives to Berlin as he has been out of government and in the private sector. Röttgen, a foreign policy expert, is a longer shot.

Meanwhile, Söder comes from the political machinery of the CSU, where he has built his career. He might come across differently to CDU voters as representing a return to the party’s more conservative, yet modern, roots. Söder has taken positions on climate policy that might make him acceptable to the Greens in what looks to be the most probable new governing coalition, although it would not be an easy relationship. He also took a harder stance on immigration policies in the run-up to the 2018 state elections in Bavaria.

It could be that Söder, unlike his two CSU chancellor candidate predecessors, might effectively represent the conservative accent better than Laschet or Merz simply by the use of his Bavarian image, which has a stronger presence in Germany than the state of NRW. As a rich southern state, the Texas of Germany, Bavaria has advertised itself as a prosperous and dynamic region with the slogan of “laptops and Lederhosen.” Whether the rest of the country would see that as an advantage remains an open question. If Bavaria has a positive outcome from the pandemic under Söder’s leadership, and if Söder can translate that into national appeal, it is not all that hard to imagine that some voters might want try out a new conservative model after a long run with Merkel. Recent polls make Söder either the most popular politician in Germany or second most, just behind Merkel. Laschet and Merz lag far behind.

Crises as Tests

Unlike his CSU predecessors, Söder will not be facing an incumbent Social Democratic chancellor, but rather a field where the SPD is now polling at 16 percent. Stoiber lost the 2002 election largely because of Schröder’s strong leadership in dealing with floods in eastern Germany while Stoiber was slow to react. In contrast, Söder has emerged from the virus pandemic, like New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, as a decisive, omnipresent, and effective leader. While Cuomo is not running for national office this year, his high profile and high approval ratings are certainly contributing to the effort to unseat Trump in November. If Söder does not wind up as the CDU/CSU candidate, he will be, like Cuomo, a strong asset for whoever does get the nomination.

Söder has emerged from the virus pandemic, like New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, as a decisive, omnipresent, and effective leader.

Söder is also aware that the eastern German electorate can play an important role in the upcoming 2021 federal election. Should he be the candidate, he needs to attract the CDU voters there and challenge the right-wing AfD by asserting his conservative credentials on immigration. He would also need to emphasize the view that he is an outsider from the Berlin political establishment and, like Trump did in 2016, this could play to his advantage in suggesting that he could bring fresh air to Berlin.

While some German voters throughout the country may be ready for a change in leadership from Bavaria, the question still remains whether the CDU leadership is prepared to cede the job of winning the election to the CSU leadership. After all, with a weakened SPD it is likely that the CDU/CSU team will be able to secure a victory even if it will require a smaller party in a coalition. But the bottom line will be: which candidate can win bigger in 2021?

Germany is at the end of another long era. The sixteen-year run of Helmut Kohl resulted in a loss for the CDU/CSU. The sixteen-year run of Merkel—as of now—looks like it may leave both parties in power in Berlin. The question is: how can these two parties best take advantage of that opportunity if it emerges?  Whoever is elected chancellor is going to face enormous challenges. It can’t be only an issue of party politics or posturing. The country will be facing a set of crises and the need for strong leadership will be critical. COVID-19 and its legacy will provide that test.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.