The conservative opposition must not call West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt a "pension swindler." But it may say that he "swindles pensioners." Such is the Solomonic distinction of the new election fairness watchdog committee that has by default drawn most of the attention so far in a lackluster general election campaign.
All in all, it's adding up to what one exasperated editorial writer (in the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung) has termed "the stupidest election campaign the Federal Republic of Germany has ever experienced."
He exaggerated, of course. But the fact remains that, one after another, all the main issues have fizzled in a duel that once was previewed as the test of the titans between Social Democratic Chancellor Schmidt and Christian Social Union chancellor candidate Franz Josef Strauss.
Thus, the prevailing calm in Poland has deflated the conservative charge that the Social Democrats' detente with communist lands is a sellout. (Mr. Strauss himself admitted as much Sept. 9, in switching to the tactic of saying that "ostpolitik," or "east policy," was no monopoly of the Social Democrats but was inaugurated by the conservative Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's trip to Moscow 25 years ago.)
Similarly, the issue of strict-parity worker representation in steel industry management has been postponed until after the election. The issue arose from Mannesmann Steel Co. plans to merge its steel pipe production with another division of Mannesmann -- and thereby move from the strict-parity "codetermination" of the steel and coal industry to the slightly lower worker participation in the "codetermination" regulations for general industry.
A real confrontation seemed to be looming -- until Mr. Strauss made a surprise approach that went part way toward supporting the workers. Mannesmann directors and union officials subsequently agreed to put off the deadline for decision to later this fall.
A third possible issue -- occasional violent (anti-Strauss) demonstrations by youths who like to throw stones and set cars on fire -- has simply never taken off. One teenager who inadvertently got jostled by protesters into the path of a municipal train in Hamburg in late August has died. And there has been property damage. But the demonstrations have remained too sporadic to become any urgent political issue.
This dearth leaves the field to such ho-hum issues as the federal government's indebtedness -- and the performance of the watchdog committee set up by the parties to ensure fairness. Chaired by a Lutheran bishop, the committee has the thankless task of ruling what is proper political accusation and what is improper personal slander.
The "pension-swindler" dispute has gotten the most publicity so far -- probably more publicity, in fact, than the phrase would have reaped if the Social Democrats hadn't protested it to the fairness committe in the first place. Some cartoons of Strauss have been declared out of bounds. So has the word "arsonist" (applied to Strauss).