Phil Klein salutes presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty for stating that ethanol subsidies need to be phased out, while kicking off his campaign today. I would argue this move is even better politics than Klein describes.
First, it actually gives his claim of “truth-telling” some credibility, and might be the most interesting thing Pawlenty has done yet. Almost every candidate claims to be willing to make hard choices and tell hard truths; we all remember then-candidate Barack Obama promising a “net spending cut” with few specifics.
For a while, it seemed Pawlenty might have followed this path; as Rich and Ramesh write in a piece posted today, “his speeches to conservatives have been notable for their groan-inducing panders.” On ethanol, Pawlenty has offered a conservative stance that genuinely involves telling an audience something they don’t want to hear, and this stance is a big, flashing anti-pander in a state that’s pretty key to his bid. He didn’t tuck it into a policy pamphlet or a line in a speech to CPAC; he put it right there in the kickoff speech, in front of an Iowa audience not likely to be receptive. The allegedly milquetoast candidate almost comes across as a little brash.
Secondly, this stance will probably do Pawlenty more good outside of Iowa than harm inside. Note that one of the first big problems Newt Gingrich ran into this year was a high-profile, noisy fight with the Wall Street Journal editorial board over the value of ethanol subsidies, attributing the criticism of the subsidies to “simple urban elitism or a desire to see rural Americans earn less money.” In that moment, Gingrich significantly harmed his standing as a serious conservative reformer and teller of hard truths. Any other GOP contender who did the same would face similar criticism of folding in the face of losing a few points in the Iowa caucuses.
Thirdly, the stance may act as a form of Iowa-loss-insurance. No doubt, Pawlenty has to perform well in Iowa. But if he loses narrowly, he and his folks now have a ready-made spin/excuse: “Look, he called for ending ethanol subsidies, and some Iowa Republicans don’t like to hear that. But now he’s demonstrated he’s willing to make the tough call and pay the political price for those tough calls.”
Keep in mind, the politically passionate folks in almost every other state resent the preeminent role Iowa plays in the presidential selection process. No state is “typical,” but Iowa’s economy is heavily agricultural and heavily unionized; their GOP voting bloc is heavily socially conservative, arguably quasi-isolationist; and A) the caucus process helps ensure no secret ballot, as everyone else who shows up can see who you support, while B) the timing ensures that no night-shift workers or those who can’t find babysitters participate.
To Republicans in other, non-corn-growing states, the ethanol subsidy looks like just another special-interest group demanding a handout. If it costs Pawlenty a few points in the Hawkeye State, he’s likely to be bragging about it in other states.