This article focuses on the capacity of parties to cultivate public opinion to accept welfare state reform. 'Preference shaping', it is argued, depends on the intensity of party 'messages', which will be at their strongest where there are sharply defined partisan cleavages in opinion. The aversion of German public opinion to economic reform can thus be explained by the reluctance of the parties (particularly the CDU/CSU) to articulate emphatic reform messages. This is attributable to the weakness of partisan cleavages on socio-economic issues. The linkage between public opinion, party position and partisan cleavages is tested by comparison with three countries - Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands - that have faced similar problems of economic reform to those now confronting Germany.