An Iowa Q&A with Bob Shrum and Liz Mair

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February 1, 2016

It’s the big night in Iowa – Caucus night! We hope by now you’ve seen Democrat Bob Shrum and Republican Liz Mair’s thoughts on the RFS and the Iowa Caucuses in our newest video, but their insight doesn’t end there!

Shrum and Mair go even deeper here on the history of the RFS and the Caucuses and the effect federal ethanol mandates may have tonight in Iowa – home of Big Corn and the first votes cast in the 2016 presidential cycle! We asked them the tough questions. Check out their answers below.

1. What is different about the role of ethanol in the Iowa caucuses this time around? For Republicans? For Democrats? (For awareness, in 2000, McCain didn’t engage in Iowa citing the ethanol mandate. In 2012, Jon Huntsman sat the state out as well, again citing opposition to ethanol. In 2016, a contender to win the GOP Caucus is vocally opposed to the federal ethanol mandate.)

Mair: 

On the Democratic side, judging by the candidates’ policy and flip-floppery towards ethanol mandates, apparently sustaining the RFS is a winner and remains a “must-do.” But on the Republican side, this is a dubious proposition. The most recent Des Moines Register poll shows that Ted Cruz’s opposition to the ethanol mandate was an issue for only 42 percent— and that’s after months of the ethanol lobby pounding him for his position on this, quasi-stalking him around the state, and Donald Trump getting in on the action. It remains to be seen if Cruz will win in Iowa, but one thing is for sure— if he doesn’t, it’s exceedingly unlikely to have been because of his ethanol mandate stance.

 There’s a good reason for this, too. The truth is, while the ethanol lobby wants politicians in Washington, DC, to believe that virtually every Iowan is out in the fields, harvesting corn and turning it into ethanol— and that without the mandate, the Iowan economy would be decimated and the whole state would drift into poverty— Iowa's economy has diversified beyond agriculture to a pretty good extent, and not even the entirety of the agricultural community supports the RFS, as I found out talking to people at the Iowa State Fair this year. You have Google there now, it’s a big center for financial services. Agriculture still matters, yes, but it’s not the only game in the state and even where it is, selling more government dependency isn't as appealing as you’d think based on the ethanol lobby’s rhetoric. Things have changed, both economically and philosophically, in recent years and cronyism is a risky venture if you’re a Republican, politically.

Shrum:

On the Republican side, we have a leading candidate who's against the mandate-- and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has blasted Ted Cruz for that and called his defeat. Branstad's son runs the ethanol lobby that has trailed Cruz across the state and trolled him with a series of attacks. What's involved here for Republicans is the difference between principle and pragmatism. They generally oppose federal mandates, but ethanol is a muti-billion dollar business in the Hawkeye State and even self- proclaimed "true" conservatives calculate that they have to come up with some accommodation to survive the caucuses. I understand the criticism that Cruz is inimical to government interference in the marketplace-- unless it helps Big Oil. But whatever his motives, on ethanol at least, Cruz is right. ( And I never thought I'd utter that phrase about Cruz on any issue.)

I don't believe the Democratic candidates have given their pro-ethanol position a second thought. It's been a standard position for Democrats over the years. In the Al Gore and John Kerry campaigns, we regarded this as a no-brainer. It was obviously good politics in Iowa -- and we were convinced it was good for the environment. That was before a decade's worth of science showed that ethanol, while it may be a renewable fuel, actually exacerbates the problem it was intended to help solve, global warming, because of the greenhouse gases its production generates. We also know now that, with approximately 47% of Iowa's  corn refined into ethanol, and vast  tracks of land devoted to growing it, the mandate results in higher food prices for middle income families, totaling thousands of dollars a year.

2. Have you ever seen the ethanol lobby work so hard to defend its own “turf?”

Mair:

Let’s be clear about this: While Ted Cruz in no way poses an existential threat to ethanol, itself, if it is indeed a product that consumers want, he does pose an existential threat to the RFS, and that’s why you’ve had the ethanol lobby following him around the state for months now, spending vast sums trying to kill him off. If Cruz wins the Iowa caucuses, which he could, it will be the most crushing blow that the ethanol lobby has ever experienced. Will it be fatal? Probably not, but it will make reform of the RFS more feasible, politically.

Shrum:

The lobby has never felt the same level of threat before. And if Cruz prevails in the Republican caucuses, the handwriting will be on the electoral wall: you don't have to support the ethanol mandate to win the first in the nation presidential contest. That's why the lobby's pushing so fiercely against the Texas senator.

3. Where do you think ethanol ranks among the issues most important to caucus goers in Iowa? What about to voters in other states?

Mair:

Overall, I think voters this cycle— in Iowa and across the country— are primarily concerned about two things right now: Whether their kids are going to be better off than them (a very real question on both sides, and one that ties in a lot of issues ranging from health insurance costs to college tuition costs to entitlements to taxation), and the nation’s security. That’s why the ethanol lobby has tried to make a point about the number of jobs in Iowa tied to it, but I suspect the reality is that a lot of Iowans would prefer that their kids go and work at Principal Financial Group than become a farmer— farming is commendable work, but there are a lot of challenges that go with being a farmer that things like ethanol mandates don’t begin to touch (though there are some business interests that are heavily dependent on the RFS, of course).

Shrum:

 For some Iowa voters, it ranks high because they have a direct economic interest. But a Cruz win or a strong second-place will indicate that the issue was far less important than it was in the past, when GOP candidates who opposed the ethanol mandate skipped or gave short shrift to the caucuse. . In other states, a recent poll reports that supporting the mandate is a  net negative – in both parties.

4. Why are candidates continuing to support the ethanol mandate when the science is clear it is bad policy?

Mair:

There are a lot of positions candidates take that make little rational or philosophical sense when measured against the opposing position, but in many cases, they do it because they want to win and they are told that if they take said stance, they can win. To be clear, the ethanol lobby does a very good job of making that argument to candidates, and they also do it using information that muddies the picture for candidates on what the science actually is. There are some issues where, yes, taking a particular position in a particular party or state can be fatal; it’s not clear to me at all that the RFS is one of them. 

Shrum:

Because they think it's politically necessary-- and given the past stances of Gore, Kerry and Obama, it's almost a reflex among Democratic candidates. As I suggested earlier, I doubt they gave it much thought.

5. How can candidates who resent the influence of corporate interests in politics and count climate change among America’s biggest national security threats reconcile support for the Renewable Fuel Standard? 

Mair:

I don’t personally believe they can, but then again, this is part of why I have trouble understanding on any personal level the voting impulses and partisan alignment of a lot of self-described Democrats!

Shrum:

 In Iowa, it not only seems to be the course of least resistance, but there are entrenched assumptions about environmental impacts that are now clearly invalid. 

I suspect the candidates don't see the mandate--or don't want to see it-- as that bad in terms of climate change, as bad as it may be.

6. If you were going to advise candidates in your party on how to approach the ethanol issue in America’s heartland, what would you say?

Mair:

I give candidates the same advice regardless of the issue or the person I’m working with: Be who you are, and stand for what you actually believe in. The fact is, most conservatives, and all libertarians, oppose big government intervention in really all sectors of the economy, including in the energy and agricultural sectors, and understand that there are a lot of reasons beyond that that voters might be concerned about increasing the amount of ethanol in their fuel tanks. So, if the kind of candidates I tend to work with are being true to themselves and telling voters what they actually think, then they’re very likely going to say that they’re for getting rid of the RFS in some form at some stage in the not-too-distant future.

Shrum:

I'm in the post – consultant period of my life. But in all honesty, I can't say that I would have advised breaking with the conventional wisdom. Progressives care deeply about the environment and climate change; however, there's no real difference among the Democratic candidates here. On the Republican side, it will be interesting to see if Cruz makes it despite his heresy on ethanol.

7. Closing question: Are you willing to give us a prediction about who will win the respective IA Caucuses?

Mair:

Ha— no. But I’ll tell you who I hope will win. On the GOP side, Ted Cruz, partly because I think he can and because I think he is a good economic conservative in general, including where the RFS is concerned (whereas Donald Trump, a big supporter of the RFS, really is not). On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, partly because Hillary Clinton has long been among my very least favorite politicians in any country I’ve lived in, I think she’s far more statist and lefty on the issues than she depicts herself as being, and she’s bad on civil liberties and national security/foreign policy, but also because I kind of love the idea of the Democratic nominee getting asked in debates about honeymooning in the Soviet Union. That would be extraordinary. I also don’t think the Democratic Party will let that happen.

Shrum:

At this point, I certainly won't brave a definitive prediction, just a safe one. In the GOP, Trump or Cruz-- and they will finish first and second; the race is too dynamic to be certain who will finish on top on caucus night. Among the Democrats, Clinton is the favorite, but Sanders has been moving up.

 

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