In the cereal aisle of the grocery store, I was struck with a sudden insight: OMG! It’s like the presidential debates!
And it’s true. A walk down the cereal aisle suggests some comparisons with presidential candidates – and perhaps some friendly reminders.
The first reminder is that America is all about choices. This is not an original insight. It was first driven home to me on a visit to Germany in the late 1980s. The wall was still there, and the Cold War still raged. The John J. McCloy Foundation, named for the first U.S. ambassador to post-war West Germany, invited American journalists to see Berlin for themselves.
We visited the Department Store of the West (Kaufhaus des Westens, affectionately known as KaDeWe), a gigantic mercantile emporium in West Berlin – so big it easily dwarfed the old Dayton’s store in downtown Minneapolis.
Then we went through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. That cost us 20 Deutschmarks – which the East Germans returned in their own currency, worthless in the West but negotiable in East Berlin.
Except there was almost nothing for sale.
We went into a liquor store thinking that perhaps we could buy a bottle of schnapps to share – but the clerk explained that the bottles contained only colored water. We did better at a bookstore. Books were ridiculously cheap all over the communist bloc; I bought several pounds of propaganda with my otherwise valueless currency. In the bargain, the East German government got my Deutschmarks, in the days before the Euro, the most sought-after currency in Europe.
At a debriefing back on the west side of the wall, our host suggested that East Germany was doomed. There’s nothing to buy over there, and no way to get hard currency – except by extorting tourists. Sure enough, the wall came down. One of my joyous German friends exalted, “They’re all here shopping,” which of course is another way to say that it’s all about choice. At the time, I thought the remark trivialized the freedom struggle in eastern Europe, but in the end, I recognized its essential truth.
This should be a cautionary note for presidential candidates. We Americans are used to choices, and the choices only expand, as the cereal aisle in the grocery store demonstrates. Like presidential candidates lined up on a debate stage, each of the boxes has its blandishments.
The thing is, the election process offers only one choice in the end, a binary choice, as someone famously said in the 2016 campaign.
Getting there is a little more complicated, however.
Take health care, for example. There’s nothing trivial about health care when it comes to politics. It emerged as a key issue in the off-year elections, and already there’s television advertising and a tweetstorm about health care and its implications for 2020.
Health care has been a decisive issue in North Dakota politics more than once, but never more crucially than in 2010. After nine terms in Congress, Democrat Earl Pomeroy lost his seat because he supported Obamacare.
The Affordable Care Act has outlived Pomeroy’s misfortune, but that election largely reshaped North Dakota politics, breaking a stranglehold that Democrats had held on the state’s Congressional delegation for three decades. There are no Democrats representing the state in Congress today, for the first time since 1958.
The idea of government health care has been largely accepted – so long as it’s not imposed. That’s an oversight that some candidates have overlooked, pointing to the Canadian system. Government health care remains a divisive issue north of the border. A couple of weeks ago, the government of Manitoba announced a snap election – permitted under Canadian election law. Voters had begun pushing back on its health care policies. That’s not the only motivation, certainly, but it drove a right-leaning government to act quickly rather than waiting for unhappiness to build.
The ACA has forced a consolidation of medical services in larger communities in much of rural America – a trend that North Dakota has escaped for the most part, at least so far, partly due to an aggressive training program for doctors at UND and a system of residencies throughout the state. It’s not one to underestimate, because a centralized payment system could drive centralization. This and other rural states have been at a disadvantage in reimbursements.
I felt overwhelmed in the cereal aisle. Scores of brands offered different enticements: more bran, more fiber, more honey, more chocolate, more berries, fewer calories and no gluten.
After an instant of anxiety, another insight struck. Like the candidates yelling at each other, there is no basis here to make a choice. I reached for the brand I knew -- but I bought a small box, and passed up the two-for-one offer, realizing that I might change my mind.
The comparison between breakfast cereal and presidential candidates is an apt one, not only because America is about choices – but also because Americans want value, and so far, it’s not clear where the value lies in the crowded presidential field.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.