Agriculture, Energy, Featured, National, Peter Blake

Blake: Why does political courage disappear in Iowa’s cornfields?

If there’s one state where a Republican presidential candidate can afford to stand on principle instead of pandering to voters, it’s Iowa.

After all, consider the last two winners of the Iowa straw poll, held each August before a presidential election year: Michele Bachmann in 2011, Mitt Romney in 2007. Neither ended up as nominee.

Or the winners of the last two Iowa caucuses, the first major primary event in the presidential election year itself: Rick Santorum in 2012, Mike Huckabee in 2008. They went nowhere then, and they’re going nowhere now.

Photo credit: Jlantzy on Wikimedia Commons.
Photo credit: Jlantzy on Wikimedia Commons.

Since Iowans aren’t good at picking winners anyway, why not impress the rest of the nation — and maybe even a few sensible Iowans — by coming out against ethanol subsidies?

That’s an easy position anywhere else. Almost everybody across the ideological spectrum, from Reason magazine to Mother Jones, condemns themas a waste of money and cropland. But they’re a sacred cow in Iowa.

So far, only Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has dared to thumb his nose at the ethanol lobby — and he did it in front of a crowd of Iowa farmers. “I know you’d like me to say I’m for the Renewable Fuel Standard, that’d be the easy thing to do,” he said with a smile. “But I’m going to tell you the truth.”

“I don’t think Washington should be picking winners and losers,” Cruz told the Iowa Ag Summit in March. There’s enough demand for ethanol without federal subsidies, he maintained.

Sen. Rand Paul, the self-described “libertarian-ish” candidate, hasn’t been quite so bold. He skipped the Ag Summit and avoided the questions. Instead of coming out against subsidies he joined with Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley to sponsor a measure — the Fuel Choice and Deregulation Act — that would allow allow fuel blends of up to 15 percent ethanol where they are now prohibited. That’s probably a good thing. But it would do nothing to eliminate the underlying mandate, the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Ethanol subsidies began in 1978 as a tax credit of 40 cents for each gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline. The credit was periodically modified through the years and a tariff was added to keep away foreign competition, like Brazil’s more efficient sugar-based ethanol.

But even before the tax credits were ended in 2011, Congress voted to require a minimum amount of ethanol to be blended with petroleum fuels — the RFS. The requirement was 7.5 billion gallons by 2012, increasing gradually to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

In short, ethanol through the years has enjoyed a subsidy trifecta: tax credits, tariff protection and mandated, ever-rising minimums.

If conservatives are disappointed by the pandering of Republican candidates on the ethanol issue, it’s because they expect more from them. Democrats are expected to pander. Hillary Clinton, the one and only Democratic candidate in 2016, is no exception. Since few voters have been able to detect any consistent principles in her political philosophy, she can pander and change positions almost with impunity.

But not quite. Robert Bryce, writing in The Daily Beast, has noticed. He recently described “Hillary’s Big Iowa Flip-Flop.”

During her early years representing New York in the Senate, he said, Clinton was an opponent of the ethanol program. She joined with New York colleague Chuck Schumer and California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to condemn the mandated blending of ethanol into gasoline.

In March 2002 they wrote that the pending legislation was “an astonishing new anti-consumer government mandate — that every U.S. refiner must use an ever-increasing volume of ethanol.”

The ethanol mandate, they said, was “the equivalent of a new gasoline tax.” Bryce claimed Clinton voted against ethanol 17 times.

But then came 2007 and her entry into the presidential race. Since she had a rival for her party’s nomination, and felt she had to win in Iowa, she did what comes naturally to politicians.

She bowed low before the Iowa Corn Empire. And so did rival Barack Obama.

In Des Moines, Clinton said that the U.S. needs to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, “and we have a perfect example right here in Iowa about how it can work with all of the ethanol being produced here.”

Nice try, but she lost the Iowa caucuses — and the nomination — to Obama anyway. She wouldn’t have done any worse if she’d stuck to her earlier opposition.

But she’s back in Iowa again in 2015 and even though she has no Democratic competition she’s staying in her pro-ethanol stance.

Libertarians and conservatives understand that ethanol subsidies are a large-scale form of crony capitalism, combining mandates and subsidies. Liberals, who jumped aboard the renewable fuels train early, later realized that corn grown for ethanol reduces food production but doesn’t reduce carbon dioxide.

Iowa could have been a good place for all candidates to stand firm against ethanol subsidies and mandates, but so far, only Cruz is doing it. Paul could be hurt the worst by his slippage toward the Republican center — not only on subsidies but on foreign intervention. His base, who admired his father Ron Paul for standing firm behind free markets and noninterventionism, has noticed the maneuvering and will abandon him. But sounding more like his rivals isn’t going to gain him new voters from those who already back one of them.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes twice a month for Contact him at You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and

Photo credit: Jlantzy on Wikimedia Commons.


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