Rare is the person, topic or issue that finds the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in unison. In the last two months, however, the voices of the world’s most-respected liberal and most-respected conservative editorial pages sang perfect harmony on one topic, their intense dislike of ethanol, the corn-based biofuel heavily promoted by U.S. farmers and heavily protected by the U.S government.
The Times began the duet in the pre-Christmas hustle to extend the 2001 Bush tax cuts. In a short, direct, Dec. 8 editorial it urged the lame duck Congress to “keep the subsidies for renewable energy, like wind and solar, while jettisoning the subsidies for corn ethanol,” partly because extending ‘em “will cost taxpayers $31 billion across the next five years.”
But Congress — lame yet agile enough to duck tough choices — declined to split the bio-energy baby: it extended ethanol’s decades-long blenders’ credit despite cries from the political left, right and center to cut federal favoritism.
No surprise. Farmers and Big Ag biz have spent three decades building domestic ethanol markets, extensive infrastructure and rock-solid political constituencies. Any threat to one brings swift and certain reaction by all through ethanol’s powerful Capitol Hill lobby. That group does one thing very, very well; it wins.
The rise of tea partiers in Congress, however, presented a new challenge to ethanol in the tax bill fight. Sen. Jim De Mint, a South Carolina GOP rainmaker and tea party power, stitched together a new anti-ethanol coalition of 17 or so politically-diverse colleagues to fight the blender credit extension.
DeMint’s efforts fell short, but they point to a blind spot in ethanol’s (really, all programs built on federal favoritism) future: Small government advocates have no love for the biofuel and or its triple-serving of federal cream — blender credits, mandated use and import tariffs.
One comfort for ethanol backers, however, is that when tea party bigfoots like DeMint take aim at biofuels it’s not personal; it’s professional. They don’t hate the product; they hate the subsidies they claim it costs.
Enter the Wall Street Journal, famous for its tough, hard swipes at big government and big farm bills. In an 1,100-word editorial Jan. 31, The Journal filleted former Speaker of the House and now-aspiring presidential candidate Newt Gingrich for his “pious tribute to the fuel made from corn and tax dollars” to the Renewable Fuels Association Jan. 25 in Des Moines.
Gingrich, always talking and always longing to be president, was simply being Roman in Rome in his speech on ethanol. After all, swearing allegiance to ethanol in Iowa it is like breathing in Iowa: everybody does it. More importantly, few survive the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucus without drinking from the ethanol barrel. (The very few that have, like anti-ethanol John McCain in 2008, simply don’t show up when the keg is tapped.)
So the ambitious Newt arrived at the well, took a long pull, and the Journal, in a fiery piece that called him Professor Cornpone, pronounced him drunk.
“Some pandering is inevitable in presidential politics,” noted the Journal, “but, befitting a college professor, Mr. Gingrich insists on portraying his low vote-buying as high ‘intellectual’ policy. This doesn’t bode well for his judgment as a president.”
And, the Journal slap-down continued, “Even Al Gore now admits that the only reason he supported ethanol in 2000 was to goose his presidential prospects, and the only difference now between Al and Newt is that Al admits he was wrong.”
Oh my, the hard right invoking the far left to condemn the far, hard right. We’re a long way from Iowa and the nearly 40-year-old “fuel of the future” now.
(The Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers in North America. Contact Alan Guebert at www.farmandfoodfile.com.)
2011 ag comm