So Jeb! now wants to phase out sugar subsidies

This story is one which delves into some of the dustier corners of the political closet, particularly in Florida. One of the major powerhouses down there in terms of political clout is the sugar industry. They have some of the most well funded lobbyists in the country and their influence weighs heavy on plenty of elections. This is a long running thorn in the side of conservatives because the sugar industry relies heavily on big subsidies and government support programs so they can fight off competition from foreign producers. The crony capitalism is thick in the air around a couple of families who control the industry and they’ve had their hooks into plenty of politicians from both parties. Marco Rubio has taken a lot of cash from these guys and still supports subsidies for them, but this week Jeb! Bush seemed to finally take a stand after years of similar behavior and said that he’s in favor of “phasing out” such subsidies. (Washington Post)

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a longtime ally of his state’s wealthy sugar producers, is parting ways with the industry and calling for an end to government subsidies that have boosted company profits for decades.

The move, a surprise to industry lobbyists, could help the Republican’s struggling presidential campaign court conservative activists and competing industries that decry the sugar program as “crony capitalism.”

Bush’s position, confirmed this week by campaign aides, comes as he retools his operation to focus on early-voting states, including Iowa, where the corn industry is preparing to begin an ad campaign attacking the subsidy. His stance puts him at odds with his in-state presidential rival, Sen. Marco Rubio (R), who is being backed by members of the Florida-based Fanjul family, which controls one of the world’s biggest sugar empires.

My apologies in advance if I’m a bit too cynical to simply buy this as a sudden Come to Jesus moment on subsidies. There are several layers to this cake and they don’t exactly speak to some platinum level conservative credentials. First of all, Jeb is looking for any angle he can manage to differentiate himself from Marco Rubio and if this makes him look like the more conservative choice, that’s hard to ignore as a factor in this decision. Secondly, Bush is still desperately trying to gain some traction in Iowa. King Corn rules that territory and the corn lobby has long been at war with Big Sugar, trying to cut their subsidies to make corn syrup more competitive with the real thing.

Finally, I have to question how sincere Bush is about actually taking concrete action against subsidies in this case even if he’s being open about his reasons. You’ll note that his spokesperson isn’t talking about “cutting” or “ending” the programs.

Bush favors “a phase out of the program,” spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said. She added that Bush “believes we should constantly be moving to reduce government interference and create a level playing field for all commodities on the world market.”

I used to be impressed with the phrase “phase out” when it tumbled from the mouths of politicians, but not so much anymore. I’ve heard it far too many times from candidates who go to Iowa and bravely talk about phasing out the Renewable Fuel Standard. Unfortunately, what that winds up meaning is that they are saying something that sounds good to the conservative base at large but it comes with a wink and a nod to the Iowa corn lobby, reminding them that “phasing out” will take longer than any of them are likely to live.

Bush’s talk of a “fair playing field” is something of a red herring also. It’s sad to say, but sugar imports present the same problems we run into in nearly every other commodity sector and with job outsourcing as well. There will never be a truly level playing field for American sugar production as long as other countries use their national purse to subsidize the products and drive down prices. It’s a tricky line to walk in American politics, but nobody promised Jeb! that running for President would be easy.