Ethanol has long been the dead man’s pass of presidential politics: No one makes it through Iowa without paying homage to the corn-based fuel now a $5 billion state industry. But this year may be different.
Ted Cruz is leading the Republican polls in the Hawkeye State despite his opposition to the federal mandate requiring gasoline to be blended with 10% ethanol. He considers the mandate to be a form of corporate welfare — which it is.
The Agriculture Department program that requires the blending is known as E10. The industry is now lobbying for a 15% mandate, or E15.
At that level, ethanol could seriously damage car engines while raising costs at the gas pump. Recent studies have also questioned whether there’s any environmental benefit to ethanol, and even many green groups oppose forcing people to put corn in their tank.
The original rationale for ethanol mandates and subsidies was it was good for the environment. Under the program, the ethanol industry received as much as $6 billion-per-year through an Ethanol Excise Tax Credit.
That was eliminated a few years ago but the blending mandate lives on. Worse, Obama wants to renew ethanol taxpayer subsidies to reduce climate change.
Iowa produces nearly 30% of the nation’s ethanol. So it’s no surprise that the Renewable Fuels Association is running ads warning voters that Cruz is bad for Iowa farmers, and why pro-ethanol critics will trail him in an RV as he begins a six-day bus tour of the state this week.
As on other issues, Cruz’s position on ethanol contrasts with other politicians too willing to throw their free-market principles out the window when their buses pull into Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.
The only other candidate with the courage to question the wisdom of ethanol mandates is Rand Paul. Donald Trump, who supports the corn mandate, has played the ethanol card against Cruz to score political points.
On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, class warriors who love to rail against big business and special favors, support the ethanol lobby.
Who knows if Cruz will hold on his lead and capture the Iowa caucuses? But if he does, it could be a turning point in political pandering. Could it lead, for example, to candidates taking on sugar subsidies when they get to Florida in March? (Are you listening, Marco Rubio?)
If Cruz becomes the first Republican in more than a quarter-century to win the Iowa caucuses without supporting ethanol, it’ll be a win for telling voters the truth.
And it’s about time.