Shucking Corn From Presidential Politics

When Jon Huntsman announced last month that he would not be actively campaigning for votes in the Iowa Caucuses, he said, "I'm not competing in Iowa for a reason. I don't believe in subsidies that prop up corn, soybeans and ethanol." It was assumed that Huntsman -- former supporter of the stimulus, climate-change solutions, and civil unions for same-sex couples -- was ducking out of Iowa to avoid confrontation with the state party's active social conservative base. By rejecting ethanol subsidies, he might indeed be offending Iowans of all stripes.

However, a new poll out this morning indicates that subsidizing corn to produce fuel may no longer be the sacrosanct issue no presidential wannabe dare touch. The Iowa Republican surveyed likely 2012 caucus voters, and found that a 47 percent plurality held a very or somewhat positive view for a hypothetical a candidate opposed to ethanol subsides, compared with only 24 percent who thought negatively of such a candidate. For the immediate future, that is good news for the few Republicans such as Tim Pawlenty or Ron Paul who have advocated for cutting the subsidies.

Beyond gaming out the 2012 nomination, though, the poll results could indicate a shift in future policies. Iowa has long exerted its privileged position as the first-in-the-nation state to force all candidates from both parties to bow down before the almighty corn stalk. In 2007, it at times felt as though every other speech took place in front of or in an ethanol plant. In 2007, candidates -- from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to John McCain and Mitt Romney -- all agreed on the importance of boosting ethanol production.

Phasing out these subsidies is currently up for consideration in the U.S. Senate. Last month, the Senate passed an amendment to strip them from the budget, but that was a largely symbolic vote given that the bill it was attached to was not going to pass. When, a few days earlier, the Senate considered the stand-alone proposal, it failed to overcome a filibuster by a narrow margin.

But yesterday, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said that a deal on ethanol subsidies is in the works, and a compromise may be reached as soon as this week. If Iowa caucus-goers continue to rank ethanol subsidies as less important than other issues, Republican senators may get the hint and be open to revoking them.

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