I’ve pretty much given up hope on the idea of our entrenched political system doing anything significant about this in my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t remain a burr under my saddle. The subject, as you might have already guessed, is this baffling, illogical addiction that our political parties have to letting the same handful of tiny states exercise gravitational influence on our presidential elections far exceeding their mass year after year. This archaic feature of our presidential primary system has been in place since before many of our younger readers were born, and even though Iowa and New Hampshire achieved this enshrined status almost entirely by accident, they now hang onto it like bulldogs with a tasty bone.
Maybe it works for Democrats… maybe not. (It gave them Jimmy Carter, even though he placed second to “uncommitted” in 1976.) But it shouldn’t work for Republicans. And no matter how you may feel about “retaining the power of the smaller states” we should all be able to agree by now that the real power in Iowa isn’t the grassroots… it’s the cornfields.
The ethanol requirement, conceived to encourage renewable energy, has been sustained despite its counterproductive effects by the lobbying of a rising ethanol-agribusiness complex and the politics of those first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, held among the sprawling cornfields of the Hawkeye State. From 1988 to 2004, I was part of that process as an adviser to Democratic presidential candidates. I thought it was a no-brainer to stump for ethanol and a no-go zone to oppose it.
At the start, the campaign promises reflected not only strategic calculation, but arguably the best of intentions. By now, it’s painfully and patently clear — and it has been for a while — that the ethanol mandate may be good politics, but it’s a putrid policy that pollutes the environment, propels global warming instead of slowing it, inflates food costs and imperils food supplies.
We’ve known about this problem for a long time and it infects both parties. We’ve known about it since even before a long ago episode of the West Wing painted a painful picture of the hypocritical candidates who bowed their heads and trudged off to Iowa to “take the pledge” or face rejection. Al Gore, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton and, yes, Barack Obama all did it. Mitt Romney, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani all did it. As the linked article notes, the only notable exception was Rick Santorum, who barely eked out a 34 vote win there, but failed to get any immediate traction out of it.
Ethanol mandates need to go, but as long as every candidate seeking the nomination is forced to bend a knee to King Corn or risk stumbling out of the primary gate, nothing is going to change. And until Iowa Republicans can muster the gumption to rid themselves of this boondoggle, they should forfeit the “honor” of going first every four years.