Farm subsidies are the original sin of American politics.
In a tradition that dates back to the New Deal, every four years a new crop of presidential hopefuls trek out to Iowa to kiss the corn stalk. Shortly after their Gulfstream 5s touch down in Des Moines, candidates stuff themselves into flannel shirts and roll up I-35 to towns like Huxley and Ames to line dance, drink local beer, and pledge allegiance to the mystery of caucus voting. There, in the early hours of planting season, yet another generation is re-committed to America’s oldest form of corporate welfare.
It’s the kind of mandatory insanity that can only happen when politicians try to appear normal, which they aren’t. Normal people don’t ask friends and strangers for money to secure a job that comes with 300 million bosses.
To be certain, nobody takes farm subsidies seriously. Farm subsides, like most government programs, are largesse that nobody but the beneficiaries fully understand. Politicians in both parties look upon farm subsidies with a skeptic’s indifference. Yet farm subsidies are important to Iowans — which means that, for a time, they are the hitching post of would-be presidents.
Since candidates have embraced this barn dance for generations, it made headlines when former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty rolled into Iowa to take a pot-shot at ethanol. That’s something you don’t do in Iowa. In the middle of a dismal economy, rising fuel prices and the apparent collapse of reason in the highest ranks of government, ethanol ranks as an issue of importance among voters somewhere between Canadian bacon imports and Scottish independence.
Yet it was a well-played move. Tim Pawlenty doesn’t expect to win Iowa. Mitt Romney’s ground operation in the Corn Belt is a behemoth and right-wing defectors are likely to be drawn to the jasmine of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin. Pawlenty knew this. He knew that Iowa was a long shot, especially for a candidate who has yet to play a recognizable role in the Republican family in the tradition of establishment frontrunner, rogue or evangelical. Thus far, Pawlenty has come off as a nice guy from the North Country — hardly a headline-stealer in the age of television. To get his campaign cooking, he needed something grand. He needed to distinguish himself as a character with character. Few acts get the job done like trashing ethanol in Iowa; which is the political equivalent of slashing the prom queen’s tires before the big ball. That turns heads. Suddenly, the nice guy from the North Country might just be a little touched. That’s the sort of maneuver that convinces network bosses to dedicate a full-time correspondent to your campaign.
It’s the safest kind of planned controversy. America’s ethanol policy was the kind of misguided bi-partisanship that happens when circumstances and technology outpace common sense. Only in a land of this abundance would the pursuit of alternative energy result in people feeding corn to their Chevy Suburbans. By dissenting, in the heart of ethanol country, Tim Pawlenty echoed what most Americans who aren’t running for president already think.
Pawlenty sacrificed Iowa and made a name for himself on the larger stage. That’s exactly what his campaign needed. It wasn’t a courageous act. Courage is saying something for the first time; not simply reciting widely held beliefs in an unfriendly environment. The governor, instead, exhibited a trait in shorter supply: strategic intelligence. He stepped beyond the automatic pandering that dominates the early hours of primary season and, for a moment, stood apart.
Tim Pawlenty may not exhibit the national reach of Mitt Romney; nor is he possessed of the polarizing flare of Sarah Palin. But he demonstrated the ability to garner national attention by speaking beyond the dime-store generalities of abortion and taxes. Political observers would do well to take note of his calculated arrival. So would the eventual Republican nominee. It’s the stuff vice presidents are made of.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.