If one drills deeper, the results are even worse for the CDU and Ms Merkel. In many of the states in which the SPD had lost elections in recent years because of Mr Schröder’s economic reforms, the party has again pulled ahead of the CDU, notably in North Rhine-Westphalia (with 40% compared with 34.4% for the CDU). It was the SPD’s crushing defeat there in May that led Mr Schröder to seek early national elections.

What went wrong for Ms Merkel? For a start, she ran a lacklustre campaign and made many unforced errors. Her biggest by far was recruiting Paul Kirchhof, a judge-turned-professor who favours radical tax reform, as her prospective finance minister, because it gave Mr Schröder an easy target. In the last two weeks of the campaign he and his party launched withering attacks on the “professor from Heidelberg” and the CDU’s “radically unsocial” reforms. Such language appears to have resonated with many Germans, who still love social consensus and dread too much change.

But the disappointing result also suggests that Ms Merkel may not have been the right candidate for the CDU, because she is so atypical of a party with deep Catholic, social and western elements. The remarried, Protestant woman from eastern Germany favouring radical economic reform seems to have frightened away many who would otherwise have voted for her party. She may also have scared voters away from the CSU, which fields candidates only in the predominantly Catholic state of Bavaria. The party dropped below 50% there—a decline of nearly ten percentage points from the last elections in 2002. ~The Economist

As I have been saying since May, Frau Merkel was a very poor choice for as the Union’s candidate. The cultural divide shaping up ever more starkly in Germany (with the SPD overwhelmingly leading other contenders in the north and east, the CDU in the south and west) and the Bavarian results in particular, however, are most telling as to why this is so. Under Edmund Stoiber, premier of Bavaria and leading force in the CSU, the Union naturally received strong support in one of its core regions, and evidently having one of their own in the running for Chancellor solidified the Union’s hold on Bavaria. The Union ran far more competitively across much of the country under Stoiber, and that before the implosion of the SPD nationwide.

In spite of the largely well-fought campaign he led three years ago, and the largely accidental reasons for Schroeder’s last miraculous escape, the Union chose to drop him and alienate its core voters for no good reason when it chose Merkel. Enthusiast for good American relations that she is, Frau Merkel might have discreetly chatted with Karl Rove, cynic and scoundrel that he is, on how to win the support of core voters with whom one has next to nothing in common.

It was not simply that Frau Merkel was a bad candidate and terrible party leader who ran a dreadful campaign, which everyone acknowledges, but that, as the article suggested, she had no connection with the people whom she claimed to represent and could not even pretend to share in the culture of Catholic Germany to which she had no personal religious or professional connections. Elections are contests over symbolic meaning–they have very little to do with government or policy, as we should all know from experience–and the Union chose to set up as its symbol something completely unrecognisable to its constituents. Even if the CDU is now entirely secular and makes little pretense to advancing a specifically Christian social program, American politics ought to have taught the Union that patterns of cultural and religious allegiance often are more important for determining electoral outcomes than the ‘rational’ appeal of a platform.

In light of this, the schizophrenic campaign of the tax-slashing Mr. Kirchhof and the actual platform of raising taxes to resolve Germany’s fiscal woes only added to the damage that had already been done when the Union chose symbolically to endorse someone in whom the Union voters could not recognise themselves or their values. The CDU choosing her to represent its interests has been rather like Illinois Republicans choosing Alan Keyes as their Senate candidate, and it has been just about as successful.