Paying fealty to farmers
When Ted Cruz is the only person talking sense, something is wrong
A FEW years ago, while reporting on the madness that is European farm subsidies, this columnist came up with a “Richard Scarry” rule of politics. Most politicians hate to confront any profession or industry that routinely appears in children's books (such as those penned by the late Mr Scarry). This gives outsize power to such folk as farmers, fishermen, doctors, firemen or—to cite a fine work in the Scarry canon—to firms that build Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. The rule is seldom good news for taxpayers, and there is a logic to that too: picture books rarely show people handing over fistfulls of money to the government.
The Scarry rule was tested afresh on March 7th at the inaugural “Iowa Ag Summit”, a campaign-style forum for politicians pondering White House runs in 2016. Reflecting Iowa's clout as host of the first caucuses of the presidential election cycle, the summit lured nine putative candidates, all of them Republicans. Democrats were also invited, but declined. Such grandees as Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey took turns to sit on a dais beside a shiny green tractor, to tell an audience of corn (maize) growers, pork-producers and hundreds of reporters how much they love farmers.
The gathering was an unprecedented show of strength by the farm lobby. Rather than wait for journalists to tease out candidates' positions over months on the campaign trail, the nine Republicans were each quizzed on stage for 20 minutes by the summit's organiser, Bruce Rastetter, an Iowa ethanol and pork magnate. His most pointed questions concerned the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a federal mandate which obliges oil firms to blend billions of gallons of ethanol into vehicle fuel each year. Most of that ethanol is made from corn, in a process of questionable value to the environment, though a newer type made from stuff like corn stalks is better for the planet and for people in poor countries who eat corn or feed it to animals.
Taking a stance on the RFS is a nightmare for ambitious Republicans. Boosters insist that ethanol has created 73,000 jobs in Iowa, and many more across the electorally important Midwest. They declare that every barrel distilled means less oil bought from foreign regimes that hate America. The corn lobby adds that recent doubts over the future of ethanol quotas have hit farm incomes and cost jobs, including at Iowa tractor factories. Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa, who calls the Ag Summit a “bold and brilliant” way to educate presidential candidates about farming, notes that agriculture was booming during the 2008 and 2012 elections, and so was not much discussed. Now, amid falling prices, he calls farmers “genuinely fearful”.
However, the RFS is a glaring example of Big Government meddling. It is awkward, to put it mildly, for a small-government conservative to favour rules that force Americans to buy more of something than they want. For, adding to Republicans' pain, the RFS is resented by the oil industry, which makes good money by blending a bit of ethanol into petrol but loathes plans to make it add a lot more.
Most Republicans at the Ag Summit tried to have it both ways. They poured noisy scorn on federal regulation and loudly declared their faith in free markets. They expressed confidence that farmers, not bureaucrats, know best how to manage the land. This was the cue for some corny reminisce. “I've sat on the end of a turnrow and watched a wheat crop be lost to a hailstorm,” sighed Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas and farmer's son. Mr Bush noted that Florida had lots of citrus farms. Asked whether he backs rules that would label all produce by country of origin, he managed to woo Christians, Iowans and Hispanics in a single answer, and all while presenting himself as a family-loving Everyman. The day after the Ag Summit would find him at a Publix supermarket after church, shopping for “Sunday Fun Day” at his Florida home, explained Mr Bush, whose wife is Mexican. Iowa beef would be on the menu and his own special guacamole, and “I want to know where that avocado is from.”
Then seven of the nine murmured that the RFS was the law and so should be enforced, or should be preserved for a while to give farmers certainty as they plant crops. Market forces would ultimately prevail, said Mr Bush delicately, so that farmers might not need the RFS after 2022 “or somewhere in the future”. This pandering marked a timely shift for some. Mr Walker used to denounce ethanol mandates with a passion, calling them “central planning” and “fundamentally wrong”. But the Wisconsin governor, whose fortunes have been surging of late, can ill-afford to alienate a next-door state like Iowa, full of pious, thrifty midwestern conservatives in his image. So Mr Walker told the Ag Summit that he is willing to see the RFS continue, at least for now.
Patrick Pig at the trough
The pandering is bipartisan: ethanol backers cheered reports that Hillary Clinton has recruited an aide to Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary and a former Iowa governor, to run her campaign in the state. Yet the pandering is not universal. Mr Perry did not explicitly endorse the RFS. His fellow-Texan, Senator Ted Cruz, told Iowans that he opposes it, explaining his conviction that “Washington should not be picking winners and losers.”
Mr Cruz is betting that political dynamics are changing. The Ag Summit showed the farm lobby's strength but also its vulnerability: a truly confident industry would not even ask candidates to declare their fealty, almost a year ahead of the first presidential caucus. In 2000 Senator John McCain simply skipped Iowa, because he opposed ethanol subsidies. Today, the shrink-the-government right is more confrontational. Mr Cruz sensed a political advantage in flying to Iowa to sit beside a tractor telling farmers that they are wrong to want federal help. The coming months will reveal if he is right, or if the Scarry rule remains in force.
克鲁兹是在赌，政治风向已经变了。农业峰会在展示农业游说团体实力的同时，也展示了其脆弱性—一个真正有自信的产业，是不会在第一次总统竞选党会开始一年前，就让候选人表忠的。2000年时，约翰·麦凯恩仅仅因为反对对乙醇进行补贴就放弃了爱荷华州。如今，对是否要减小政府权力的讨论更加如火如荼。克鲁兹认为，飞去爱荷华州，坐在拖拉机旁，告诉农民们，他们想要寻求联邦帮助的想法是错的这一举动，会带来政治优势。未来的几个月里将见证，究竟他是对的，还是斯凯瑞定律的地位仍牢不可催。 翻译：杨雪 校对：靳方方