Politics & Policy

The Iowa Caucus Is Like an Ethanol Subsidy for Iowa Politicians

Cruz at a campaign stop in Carroll, Iowa, January 2, 2016. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty)

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First, kill the Iowa caucuses.

Please note: I didn’t say, “Kill the Iowans.” I like Iowans and I like Iowa.

But we need to get Iowa’s boot off our neck.

That may be misunderstood, as well. You see, we’re not under the heel of all Iowans. If we were, that’d actually be better because that would mean lots of Iowans turned out to vote.

But most don’t. As Jeff Greenfield recently noted in Politico, rumors of Iowa’s commitment to democratic engagement are wildly overstated. In 2008, a record-shattering 350,000 caucus-goers caucus-went. All the buzz was about the precedent-shattering turnout for the Democratic longshot, Senator Barack Obama. He got first-time and young voters to come out in droves. “This is what democracy looks like!” was the spirit of the moment.

Rumors of Iowa’s commitment to democratic engagement are wildly overstated.

Greenfield quotes a study from the Kennedy School of Government: “In percentage terms, Iowa’s turnout was hardly earthshaking — only 1 in 6 of the eligible adults participated. The Democratic winner, Barack Obama, received the votes of just 4 percent of Iowa’s eligible voters. Mike Huckabee, the Republican victor, attracted the support of a mere 2 percent of Iowa adults.”

The turnout in New Hampshire: More than 1 in 2 (51.9 percent).

Such appallingly low turnout in Iowa underscores the real problem with the caucuses. They’ve been hijacked by party activists — on both sides.

RELATED: Why GOP Elites Hate Iowa

It’s a lot like school-board elections in many cities. Teachers unions do not like high turnout because they know they can control the results if they are the only ones who show up on Election Day.

That’s not true this year, of course, because high turnout is required to beat Senator Ted Cruz, who has publicly opposed federal subsidies for ethanol.

#share#We’ll come back to Cruz in a moment. But first, ethanol. Nearly half of all the corn in Iowa goes into ethanol production, because Washington says we all have to put it in our gas tanks, and Iowa is the Saudi Arabia of corn.

Almost no one else benefits from ethanol. It’s not good for our cars’ mileage or longevity. It’s not good for the environment (many environmental groups oppose the mandate). It’s not good for food prices (every ear of corn you put in your gas tank is one more you can’t feed to a child or to livestock).

RELATED: Refusing to Kiss King Corn’s Ring in Iowa

It’s not even particularly useful in the fight against global warming. One study, by Princeton professor Tim Searchinger, published in Science magazine, found that over a 30-year span, ethanol ends up contributing twice as much carbon dioxide to the air as the same amount of gasoline would.

The stuff is government moonshine, and like moonshine in the 19th century, it’s sold as snake oil for what ails ya.

RELATED: Principle over Politics in Iowa

Ted Cruz recognizes this and had the temerity to say so in Iowa. He’s more diplomatic than I am, but he’s basically stuck to his principle that government shouldn’t be subsidizing an industry that wouldn’t survive in the free market and that is propped up by the grasping political class in Iowa.

The graspers took note, and there’s a short distance between a grasp and a fist. Terry Branstad, Iowa’s Republican governor-for-life, broke the custom of neutrality and singled out Cruz. Branstad said Cruz “hasn’t supported renewable fuels and I think it would be a big mistake for Iowa to support him.”

#related#Whatever you think of Cruz, it would be a shame for Branstad’s gambit to be perceived as successful, because it all but guarantees that no presidential candidate, running in Iowa, will ever oppose the mandate again. Ironically, Donald Trump, who has pandered to Big Corn even more than most of his competitors, needs a record-breaking turnout to put Cruz away in Iowa.

But the ethanol subsidy isn’t the reason we should get rid of the caucuses, it’s an illustration of the problem. We’ve created a monster. It hasn’t always picked the winner, but they all bent the knee to an un-representative cabal of consultants, politicians, and plutocrats. In effect, the Iowa caucuses are a subsidy for the Iowa political establishment. Get rid of that subsidy, and maybe some others will go with it.

— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. He can be reached by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2016 Tribune Content Agency
Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now. @jonahnro

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