Kaffee Klatsch

Capitalism and Croissants

The debates and panels start a little after sunrise every day during the Davos forum.

Chris Ratcliffe, Bloomberg / Getty Images

There’s something about breakfast debates at Davos that kills the appetite.

It’s not the food. At luxury hotels like the Seehof, where the ubiquitous British (and European) politician Peter Mandelson held forth alongside Mark Penn, the American CEO of the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, this morning, the croissants are quite acceptable. But everyone was so focused on the speakers in the tight little Alpine dining room that nobody wanted to reach for a coffee pot or a pain au chocolat.

First we heard some quick and dirty prognostications about the two big elections this year.

In the United States in November: Obama wins, the panelists think, thanks to the imploding Republican Party.

Asked about the fast-rising fortunes of Newt Gingrich, Penn had a one-liner at the ready: “I think Gingrich would be a great candidate in the sense that the Titanic was a great ship.”

In France, Mandelson suggested, Socialist candidate François Hollande is well positioned to beat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy this spring, even though nobody seems very sure what Hollande stands for. (President Sarkozy’s polls are so abysmal that when his approval ratings edged into the mid-30 percent range the French press started headlining, “The Comeback!”) Then Mandelson hedged his bet: “Sarkozy is a great campaigner and you can’t write him off yet.”

I know, that doesn’t sound so amusing. But, in fact, it’s precisely the way Mandelson covers his bets that makes him amusing. Thus he says “the public yearns for an individual” who is daring enough in politics to “separate from the herd.” And clearly he’s looking for that, too. (Who isn’t? It makes such good copy.) But then again, “spontaneity in an election has to be very carefully planned,” said the man who branded Tony Blair’s “New Labour” in the 1990s.

Mark Penn, getting serious during the question-and-answer session, said that foreign policy is likely to play only a very small role in the upcoming American elections. One obvious indicator: Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last night, which more or less reduced the world to Chinese cheating on free trade, troops out of Iraq, and Osama bin Laden dead in Pakistan.

The real issue, said Penn, is not just the economy or jobs: “I think capitalism is very much on trial in this election ... People are really questioning the system.”

Mandelson, looking for a way to characterize the nervousness in these parts, said European leaders are like people climbing a mountain all tied together, careful to avoid letting anyone fall, and at the same time ready to rein in any government that doesn’t treat the situation very, very seriously. “If one idiot starts to lark about, it could bring all the others tumbling down.”

And on that happy note, I left the breakfast to go get something to eat.