The Trouble With Iowa

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann brought an Iowa audience to its feet Saturday when she said: “social conservatism is fiscal conservatism.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who joined Bachmann at Rep. Steve King’s Conservative Principles Conference this weekend, echoed this sentiment when he asserted: “if you don’t start with values…the rest of it doesn’t matter.”

Both these GOP presidential hopefuls gave red meat to Iowa’s social conservatives, who play a pivotal role in the nation’s first caucus (set for February 6, 2012). This group wants the GOP to focus on abortion and gay marriage and think President Obama’s repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is a big deal. They scoff  at Indiana governor Mitch Daniels’ suggestion that the party should put a temporary truce on social issues and focus on the nation’s fiscal state during this turbulent economic time.

This inter-party tension is just one challenge Republicans face as they gear up for this presidential cycle. The country wants to focus on economic matters, but Iowa Republican voters believe presidential aspirants should talk about social issues and, of course, ethanol.

Iowans expect candidates to support ethanol subsidies. Both Iowa winners in 2008 (Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama) were big supporters of this alternative energy. That year, 450 million bushels of Iowa corn were used in ethanol production. Advocates (and most everyone in Iowa is) argue ethanol reduces pollution and provides a clean fuel. Congress has agreed (most Congressmen dream of being president); the legislative branch has subsidized ethanol since fuel shortages in the 1970s. In 2004, President George W. Bush (who won the Iowa Caucus in 2000) and a GOP controlled Congress passed the American Jobs Creation Act, which mandated and subsidized this green energy until 2015 (taxpayers forked over $5.16 billion to support this boondoggle in 2009).

Ethanol opponents claim it’s no cleaner than gasoline. A March 2010 BioScience journal report argued that, even in the best-case scenario, ethanol was only a marginally cleaner than gasoline. It released 92 grams of green house gas while gasoline emitted 94-96 grams.

But ethanol has an added cost (in addition to the subsidized largesse provided by taxpayers): the rise of food prices. 119 million tons of American corn was used for ethanol production in 2010. That took 28.7 % of grain out of circulation and continued a disturbing trend that’s taken place over the last decade. In the year 2000, only 16 million tons of grain was used on ethanol.

This shifting of corn out of the food supply comes as food prices continue to rise at a record pace. Food prices went up an astounding 3.9% last month. Energy prices also went up over 3% during that time frame, threatening the nation’s fragile economic recovery. Spikes in food and gasoline prices don’t necessarily signal coming inflation, but they wake voters up as people lose their disposable income.

Republican presidential candidates should beware: the nation cares about the economy. They expect leaders to focus on getting the nation back to work and helping facilitate an economic recovery and expect congressional leaders to address the nation’s ballooning deficits and perilous budget situation. The GOP made remarkable mid-term gains five months ago by focusing on a fiscal agenda and keeping divisive social issues in the background. Espousing one’s social bona fides and support of ethanol will play well in Iowa, but it will turn off a national electorate.

That’s always been the problem with Iowa. They vote first, but the state is so unrepresentative of the nation at large. The state is lily white (90% white, non-Hispanic) while the country is turning brown.  Blacks make up less than 3% of the state’s population while only 4.5% of Iowans are Hispanic.

The record of Republican caucus winners attest to this fact. Mike Huckabee, the Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister, wooed Iowa Evangelicals three years ago on his way to victory in Iowa. But his campaign floundered in snowy New Hampshire and fell apart after he couldn’t win in the South. John McCain captured South Carolina and Florida, as well as the Granite State, on his way to the nomination. Iowans picked Bob Dole and evangelist Pat Robertson ahead of the 1988 nominee, George H.W. Bush. Eight years earlier, they looked past Mr. Conservative, Ronald Reagan, and selected Mr. Republican, George H.W. Bush.

All Republicans should look at Iowa skeptically. This state is a crap-shoot and is no guarantor of national viability. I’d argue it’s irrelevant, and dangerously so for Republicans.  Social issues don’t matter much when the nation’s fiscal health is at risk. Ethanol is no alternative energy solution, and it only leads to higher grocery store prices. Its GOP caucus goers want candidates to focus on issues that will do no good in a general election.

Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann will probably do well in Iowa. But Republicans at large should eschew her divisive rhetoric and grating personality. They’d do well to heed Haley Barbour’s lead: focus on the economy, question the efficacy of our open-ended military operation in Afghanistan and our bloated defense budget, and keep the electorate’s focus on President Obama’s record.

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