Op-Ed: What’s the Matter With Iowa?

Source: By Gail Collins, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, December 22, 2015

One of the great things about the American political system is the amount of time it gives us to think about corn.

Oh, sure, there’s national security and taxes, but you’d be talking about them even if we were living in a monarchy. Corn only comes up in the weeks immediately before the Iowa caucuses. The issue is our federal ethanol program, which requires gasoline to be laced with biofuel, usually corn-based.

Quick quiz: How do you personally feel about ethanol?

A) If it’s good for the farmers, it’s good for the country.

B) Look, I’ve already got the trade pact and Glass-Steagall on my plate. There’s a limit.

C) How come the corn growers get all the fun? Why can’t we have the first voting in my state so I get some attention for a change?

Excellent point, C. One of the great injustices in our political system is that it guarantees that during presidential campaigns some people will be ignored entirely while others will be treated like a double-discount 60-inch TV on Black Friday. Back in 1992 the fight for the Democratic nomination went on for so long that the New York primary actually became important, and I have warm memories of listening to the candidates argue about who was going to spend the most money on mass transportation. We basked in the golden glow of pander.

We should demand a little variety in the schedule. At the minimum, we could listen to people talk about corn with a different backdrop. Stand up for your rights, Nebraska.

But about the ethanol program: It has many, many critics. Groups ranging from Oxfam to the restaurant industry claim it drives up the price of food around the globe. Some environmentalists say it’s responsible for increased air and water pollution. “Corn ethanol is actually worse for the environment than gasoline,” said Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group.

There are ways to make biofuel without corn that might be better. People have good things to say, for instance, about switch grass. Tennessee has been working on a big switch grass program. Maybe we could move the first primary to Tennessee.

Modern tradition holds that you can’t win Iowa (first in the nation!) without selling your soul on ethanol. When John McCain ran his Straight Talk campaign for the 2000 presidential nomination, he boldly declared that the program “doesn’t help anybody.” McCain lost, and by the time he returned to Iowa he had acquired a whole new take on the issue. (“A vital, a vital alternative energy source.”)

Hillary Clinton opposed ethanol when she was a senator from the less corn-intensive state of New York. She favored it when she ran for president in 2008, although perhaps not so intensely as Barack Obama, who helped cut the ribbon on a new ethanol processing plant. But the issue is less of a problem for Democratic candidates, since they don’t generally go around complaining about big government putting its fat thumb on the magic of the capitalistic marketplace.

This season, the trick for Republicans is to oppose the ethanol program on principle, while simultaneously making it clear they don’t intend to do anything about it. Marco Rubio says it’s “not something that I would have voted for had I been in the Senate” while quickly adding that “it would be unfair to simply yank it away.”

But — you will be amazed to hear this — there are also Republicans on the far, far extremes. Donald Trump is “totally in favor of ethanol, 100 percent.” He gives the impression that if he were still on TV, he’d have the celebrity apprentices creating ad campaigns around the slogan “Ethanol for One and All.”

Of course, it’s possible that tomorrow Trump will deny he ever said anything about this at all. Maybe he’ll claim he does not remember ever having met an ear of corn.

The most hard-core anti-ethanol candidate is Ted Cruz. Perhaps this is due to Cruz’s strict fiscal conservatism. Perhaps there are … other explanations. “Oil companies give him a lot of money,” Trump sniped. Yes! The opposition to the ethanol program includes Big Oil, which resents all that room corn is taking up in the gas tank.

The Cruz campaign says its man is a principled enemy of “all energy-specific subsidies.” This is arguably true if you buy the extremely convenient theory that humongous tax breaks don’t count.

Since Cruz is currently a favorite in Iowa, people are beginning to wonder if ethanol’s power is fading. This is an interesting question upon which it is very difficult to have a rooting interest. We’re going to spend the entire month of January watching a battle between Big Oil and Big Corn.

Personally, I’m waiting for the candidate who will promise to make the states take turns. Idaho in 2020. We could hear about potatoes for a change.