Once upon a time, John McCain was the exception to the rule that a presidential candidate would, without hesitation, proclaim fealty to ethanol subsidies while campaigning in Iowa, a state that is home to the nation’s first caucus as well as an abundance of corn. That time has passed.
In 2012, Republican candidates unwilling to use tax dollars to prop up corn-based fuel are as common as those still bowing to the Hawkeye State’s rows of maize. Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, and Sarah Palin flat-out reject agricultural supports of any kind. Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum want to eliminate them gradually. Only Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have praised the subsidies; The Wall Street Journal mocked the latter as “Professor Cornpone.”
Credit the changing political winds in part to the tea party movement and its zeal to put everything on the budget negotiating table, even such sacrosanct programs as Social Security, Medicare, and $6 billion in annual ethanol subsidies. Just as the 2012 election will determine whether voters can abide Rep. Paul Ryan’s radical entitlement overhaul—and the candidates who back it—the first Iowa caucus of the tea party era will gauge the endurance of corn politics. “There are no more sacred cows when we have a $1.4 trillion deficit,” said Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party, which is beginning a statewide bus tour next week. “The burden of proof has shifted back to the people who defend these subsidies. That’s how the tea party has shifted the debate.”
That’s not to say that ethanol is at the forefront of the tea party’s agenda in Iowa or anywhere else. President Obama’s health care law tends to be the biggest target. But Iowa activists say that a candidate’s position on energy subsidies will matter in 2012. A tea partier dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier lashed out at the subsidies last month at a Des Moines press conference urging Congress to reject an increase in the federal debt limit. “Being able to say you oppose the subsidies shows backbone and that the candidate understands the need to bite the bullet,” said Gregg Cummings, founder of We the People Tea Party of southern Iowa.
Pawlenty’s stand against ethanol subsidies has drawn kudos from The Wall Street Journal (which commended his “fortitude”) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (who, singing straight from Pawlenty’s press releases, praised his “truth-telling”), among others. Except the former Minnesota governor has plenty of political cover these days, not just from tea party activists but also from the state’s Republican establishment. Gov. Terry Branstad, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the state’s GOP House delegation, and even the ethanol lobby’s Renewable Fuels Association support phasing out the subsidies. Rep. Steve King, a leading Iowa conservative, said recently on CNN, “Over a very short period of time, I think the industry can stand on its own two feet.”
Iowa’s dwindling rural population is another factor in the declining power of ethanol. Since 1980, the number of people who live on farms has dropped from nearly 400,000 to under 200,000, according to a 2010 survey by Iowa State University. Still, rural residents constituted a formidable two-thirds of GOP caucus-goers in 2008, according to entrance polls.
The emerging political consensus on ethanol raises questions about Huntsman’s candor in blaming corn for his decision to bypass campaigning in Iowa. Is it really the ethanol debate that’s keeping a Mormon candidate—who has supported civil unions, immigration reform, and cap-and-trade—out of a caucus dominated by Christian conservatives? Iowans were skeptical. Secretary of State Matt Schultz said in a statement that Huntsman’s explanation “seems to have as much credibility as ‘the dog ate my homework.’ ”
Take the criticism of Huntsman with a grain of salt (or a kernel of corn) because Iowa Republicans have a vested interest in protecting the state’s status as a kingmaker in presidential politics. History also points to an ethanol fault line. The winners of the past four Republican caucuses—Bob “Senator Ethanol” Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and Mike Huckabee in 2008—were all strong supporters of ethanol subsidies. Former Democratic nominee and caucus winner Al Gore added to the ethanol mythology when he admitted last year that he backed the subsidies to curry favor with Iowa farmers.
On the verge of a formal campaign launch, Huntsman appears to be following the script written by the best-known opponent of the subsidies: McCain, who won his party’s nomination in 2008 with heavy campaigning in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida—and a light footprint in the cornfields of Iowa.
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This article appears in the June 11, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.