Editorial: Obradovich: Ethanol could be issue in 2016 presidential cycle

Source: Obradovich, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, December 2, 2013

Aug. 9, 2011- Iowa State Capitol – ‘Values voter bus tour’ launches in Des Moines and travels Iowa prior to the Straw Poll REMARKS: Republican presidential candidate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks at a campaign stop at the Family Research Council Action, National Organization for Marriage, and Susan B. Anthony List Values Bus Tour Kickoff, at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011. / Rodney White/The Register

During the 2011 campaign leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty tried to show he was courageous enough to poke some sacred cows — like ethanol in Iowa.

He proclaimed during his formal campaign announcement in Des Moines that he planned to roll back federal subsidies for ethanol, the corn-based fuel that has done a lot to energize Iowa’s farm economy. It may have impressed some in the national media, but in fact by that time ethanol subsidies were mostly a non-issue — even Sen. Chuck Grassley had called for cutting them.

That sacred cow was mostly bull in 2012 — but it could be mooing louder in the 2016 cycle. That’s because the Obama administration has churned up a ruckus by proposing to reduce the renewable fuel standard (RFS) for 2014. The change means the mandate for ethanol and other renewable fuels will be 1.4 billion gallons lower next year than under existing law.

Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday suggested the Environmental Protection Agency’s idea amounts to a betrayal of Iowa voters by President Barack Obama. Branstad, a Republican, said Obama, a Democrat, came to Iowa and campaigned as a supporter of renewable fuels. “And you know, he benefited from the support he received in the Iowa caucuses against John McCain who was not a supporter of ethanol,” Branstad said.

The governor added, “I think anybody who aspires to be president of the United States also should make a commitment to continuing … reduction of our dependency on foreign oil and continuing to have more and more of our energy come from renewable sources like ethanol and biodiesel,” he said.

One potential Republican presidential candidate who would be on the opposite side of the fence from Branstad on this issue is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He called in August 2012 for the EPA to waive the renewable fuel standard, which he said was driving up food prices and straining businesses.

Branstad argued that corn prices are down and the RFS change would likely push the price below the cost of production. He added that the availability of a byproduct of ethanol production for animal feed has led to an increase in cattle in Iowa.

Republican political consultant Bob Haus, who supported Perry’s 2012 campaign, said he personally believes ethanol will be an issue in the 2016 caucus campaign. “I’m not sure it if will necessarily be a litmus issue,” Haus said.

He noted that ethanol is important, but it’s not the only way to reduce reliance on foreign oil. Wind and solar energy, and advancements in fossil fuel drilling are also part of the solution. “The energy picture had changed dramatically since ethanol came on the market,” Haus said.

Speaking of sacred cows, some may predict that it will hurt the Iowa caucuses if Branstad suggests candidates should once again pledge support for ethanol. McCain, the GOP nominee in 2008, skipped Iowa in his 2000 campaign — purportedly because he didn’t believe his anti-ethanol position would allow him to compete here.

That was a flimsy excuse and a mistake on McCain’s part back then. That doesn’t mean other candidates won’t try again to marginalize Iowa based on the issue. The fact remains, however, that skipping Iowa is a much more perilous strategy than coming here and defending a few unpopular issue positions.

Iowans may care about ethanol, but as Haus notes, it’s not the only issue caucusgoers consider when vetting presidential candidates. “There are a lot of other issues on caucusgoers’ minds,” Haus said. “So I don’t think it’s going to hurt Iowa’s standing for the governor to stand in a corner and defend (ethanol) at all.”

Perry, who spent two days in Iowa this month, doesn’t seem to think his energy positions would preclude him from competing in the caucuses if he decides to run for president in 2016. He indicated that if he runs, he will start earlier. Presumably, that will mean more time in Iowa, not less.

Branstad’s warning shouldn’t be taken lightly, however. Presidential candidates who presume they can easily tip over this old sacred cow in Iowa may find they’ve stepped into a smelly mess.