``There's a struggle for the soul of the party,'' commented a young Social Democrat, an ardent pro-American who is worried by left-wing flirtation with anti-Americanism. What especially bothers him is the contempt with which the leftists treat pro-Americans in West Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- and what he sees as a consistent bias toward advancing ideological leftists in preference to moderates at the lower rungs of the party. On a more public level, two major players personify the struggle for the ``soul'' of the country's main opposition party this month: SPD chancellor candidate and North Rhine-Westphalia Premier Johannes Rau and party chairman and ex-chancellor Willy Brandt. Their various clashes and compromises on attitudes toward the US are being watched with some apprehension in Washington as the 1987 election approaches.
Mr. Rau has made his political career first as a nice guy and second as a policymaker for West Germany's largest and most industrialized state. His foreign-policy views are largely unformed, beyond the general moral convictions of a practicing Christian.
Thus, the campaign that got Rau reelected as state premier last year focused almost exclusively -- a deliberate imitation of President Reagan's style -- on the personable Rau and his family. Yet it was clear that he stood for middle-of-the-road domestic policies, slightly more welfare than the conservative federal government, and modest environmental cleanup that would not endanger industry or jobs. It has also been abundantly clear that Rau would never entertain any active or tacit coalition with the leftist, counterculture Greens.
The general assumption always was that Rau would be as moderate in foreign as in domestic policy, but there were few signs to go by. Since a premier has no role abroad beyond promoting his state's exports, there was no occasion for him to develop concrete foreign-policy positions. Rau has had to define these positions only recently, after being selected as the 1987 SPD chancellor candidate last year. This he has begun to do in speeches, comments, and interviews connected to visits with leaders such as the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan.
In these comments, Rau has stressed his party's continued commitment to NATO and the whole Western alliance. Moreover, he has said that if he becomes chancellor, he will not request withdrawal of those US missiles stationed here since the new NATO Euromissile deployment began at the end of 1983. That point had been left ambiguous in party statements following the SPD convention's landslide rejection of new deployments a year before they began.
Rau's statements seem to have reassured Mr. Reagan, who met with him for half an hour on Rau's most recent trip to Washington -- a time slot equal to that allotted conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl last fall. This contrasted sharply with recent US suspicions about the SDP's foreign policy and with Reagan's conspicuous refusal to see Brandt the last time the party chairman was in the US.
In the early 1960s, Brandt was a darling of the US when, as West Berlin mayor, he stood fast against attempted Soviet erosion of Western rights in West Berlin. But some estrangement set in as differences developed over American prosecution of the Vietnam War, and then over the pace of d'etente when Brandt was chancellor in the early 1970s.
The greatest mutual irritations developed in the 1980s. Brandt viewed Reagan as a trigger-happy cowboy who might start a nuclear war. The Americans came to view Brandt as someone who was edging toward neutralism out of excessive concern for nurturing East-West German relations.
Brandt came to speak more and more often of a common Central European identity across the East-West divide in a way that treated the two superpowers as equal threats to peace or sometimes even portrayed the US as the greater threat. In a move that aroused grave misgivings among US Democrats as well as Republicans, he also initiated common proposals on European nuclear-free and chemical-free zones with East Germany's Socialist Unity (Communist) Party.
Brandt also supported the leftist Oskar Lafontaine (now Premier of the Saarland), who advocates West German withdrawal from the NATO military alliance. And for a time, he courted the Greens, propounding the thesis of a ``majority on the left.''
After the decisive SPD defeat in the 1983 election, Brandt returned to a strategy of attracting votes at the center. And his intention now seems to be to steer clear of any major foreign policy debate whatsoever at the next SPD convention. This shift, along with the generality of Rau's pronouncements on foreign policy, has spared the party an intramural rift.