When it comes to politicians, traveling to Iowa seems to bring out the worst in them. Maybe it’s something in the water or a strange convergence of ley lines creating cosmic rays which zap some critical portion of their brain stems. Whatever this strange phenomenon may be, it seems to have struck Rick Santorum during his recent trip to the Hawkeye state. At one stop, the former Pennsylvania Senator was hit with the standard question of ethanol subsidies and the Renewable Fuel Standard. His answer was puzzling to say the least.

One of the things that’s helped rural small towns and farmers, particularly in Iowa, is the Renewable Fuel Standard, Santorum said.

“We need to do risk management and stop picking winners and losers,” Santorum said. “We need the RFS to allow market access. To me, to provide that market access is a no-brainer.”

I’m fairly sure that by this point the vast majority of conservatives are on board with the idea of ending subsidies and allowing the invisible hand of the free market to do its work. Our history of government meddling and Uncle Sam putting his thumb on the economic scales has indeed produced a disastrous record of “picking winners and losers” by an entity which… doesn’t pick very well. With that in mind, it’s good to hear Santorum speaking out against it. But how, then, does he square working support for the Renewable Fuel Standard and ethanol subsidies into the same breath?

The RFS is one of the most stark examples of Washington picking winners and losers. And the “winner” they pick every time is ethanol, an inefficient fuel which is bad for machinery and creates opportunities for scams such as the trading of renewable fuel credits. Or, to be more accurate, the “winners” are the corn growing interests of Iowa and the politicians who successfully use this cudgel against Republicans because of their first in the nation caucus position.

The political temptation is obvious here, but that doesn’t excuse the response. Santorum has tasted victory in Iowa before, taking a disappointing fourth place in the 2011 straw poll before roaring back to win a razor thin victory over Mitt Romney in the caucus the following January. If you remove ethanol from the discussion, Iowa is a very socially conservative state and Santorum has traditionally been a good fit there. Unfortunately – back in the real world – you can’t remove ethanol from any political discussion in Iowa. Rick Santorum is a smart guy and I refuse to believe that he doesn’t understand the conservative position on subsidies, so it’s difficult to conclude that this is anything other than pandering on his part.

This subject continues to trip up the GOP field this year, with only Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina seeming to take a truly hard line, principled stand against subsidies. Everyone else has been either dancing around the edges and trying to have it both ways or just throwing in the towel entirely and bending a knee to King Corn. With this latest appearance, Santorum seems to have signed on with the latter group.