Need to Know: Politics

Corn Beef

Time was, GOP presidential hopefuls had to support ethanol subsidies to get the nod in Iowa. The tea party changed all that.

Corn plants grow in a field, Tuesday Aug. 12, 2008, near Grimes, Iowa. In its first estimates this year based on actual field visits and farmer surveys, the U.S. Department of Agriculture raised its estimate of corn production and said "nearly ideal" weather has helped Midwestern farmers recover from June's devastating floods. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Beth Reinhard
June 9, 2011, 12:30 p.m.

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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