Why It’s Time to Betray My Iowa Heritage (Sort of)

I’ve always loved the idea of the Iowa caucuses. They conjure an image, don’t they? You can see them now, those gentle, unassuming Iowans shuffling through the snow on their way to the local library or high school gymnasium; presidential candidates meeting with townspeople in diners on whose walls hang pictures of candidates from decades past; the prideful assertion of the importance of shaking everybody’s hand. It all comes together to form a picture (if you’re being charitable) of the type of quaint democracy that seems to be disappearing from national politics anymore.

Allow me to argue three points: (1) the images I conjured above are mostly true (I’ve seen it); (2) that being said, it’s high time Iowa lost its place as the first caucus of the presidential election season (but maybe not for the reason you think), and (3) Chris Christie running for president may ultimately be the straw that tips the scale, causing Iowa to lose its spot in the 2015 primary season.

I’ll start with the first point. Many people argue, with some good reason, that Iowa is not representative of the country as a whole, and thus does not deserve first place in the primary/caucus cafeteria line. They say the state is too old, too white, too rural, that too few people show up to vote, that even when they do show up to vote their votes sometimes don’t get counted, and so on and so forth. Much of this is true, of course. But contrary to popular belief, Iowans—young and old, smart and dumb, black, brown and white (well, they’re mostly white, actually), Republican and Democrat—exemplify a broad spectrum of humanity. (NOTE: Carolyn passionately touts Pennsylvania as the most representative state in the nation. We’ll leave that for another blog post.)

Considering I’m an Iowan myself, and a 2007 caucus veteran,* it’s not easy for me to argue against my home state’s place in the national spotlight. So, as our President would say, let me be clear: My point is NOT that Iowa should be dethroned because it does a poor job of representing the country, or because its people somehow aren’t worthy; I vehemently disagree with both underlying assertions. Rather, Iowa needs to be dethroned because its presence at the top of the primary/caucus heap prevents politicians from fixing the environmental catastrophe known as ethanol.

The American stance on ethanol, and its effects, has been, in a word, devastating. Just read this article. If you’re short for time (fair warning: it’s long), I’ll give you a somewhat abbreviated summary, starting with some recent history.

As part of the country’s push to reduce greenhouse gases and curtail global warming, we have leaned heavily on the promise of ethanol-based fuel as a means of reducing carbon emissions. In 2007, Congress passed legislation (under then-President Bush) mandating that oil companies inject billions of gallons of ethanol into their gasoline supply. At the time the bill was in Congress, Senator Obama (hailing from Illinois, one of the largest corn-producing states in the nation, and neighbor to even more corn-heavy Iowa) was in the thick of the presidential race—a race that would begin, of course, with the Iowa caucuses. Obama, seeing the writing on the wall, backed the bill, and from then on began touting his allegiance to ethanol-friendly constituencies on the campaign trail. He won the Iowa caucus, and the rest is history.

There was dispute about the bill’s efficacy from the start, however. After Obama was elected, the task of implementing the new law fell to Obama’s newly-appointed EPA administration. Many higher-ups in the EPA recognized that the law would spur a massive demand for corn, and in order to grow corn, farmers would have to fertilize their land, a process which causes the release of greenhouse gases by unearthing carbon dioxide and adds nitrogen to the land and water supply. Additionally, the production of ethanol itself would involve burning coal or gas, in turn releasing even more greenhouse gases. People at the EPA quickly realized that the only way the ethanol initiative made sense, from an environmental perspective, was in the (very) long run, because it would take decades for the (very) theoretical gains to make up for the high environmental costs required to set up production of ethanol.

Even more devastating, some feared that the increased demand for corn would cause farmers to dig up previously untouched prairie grasslands in the Midwest (known as conservation land), a process which would (paradoxically, you might say) release still more greenhouses gases, and which would also destroy the natural prairie grasses which themselves combated global warming by swallowing up carbon dioxide. If natural conservation land was destroyed, the law’s environmental goals would be completely subverted. Further bolstering these fears was a 2008 study, published in Science magazine, which came to a frightening conclusion: “Plowing over conservation land releases so much greenhouse gas that it takes 48 years before new plants can break even and start reducing carbon dioxide.”

Yet while members of the EPA, as well as many independent scientists and environmentalists, believed—with facts to prove it—that this new emphasis on ethanol was bad environmental policy, the Obama White House and Department of Agriculture (conspicuously led by Iowa’s former governor, Tom Vilsack) enthusiastically backed the new law.

The regulations took effect in July of 2010. Now, three years later, we can measure the ghastly effects:

Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — have vanished on Obama’s watch. Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil. Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive. The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative impact.

In short, the law has caused farmers to produce vast amounts of corn, greatly harming the environment in the process. And with the high price of corn, these farmers are getting rich off of the destruction of millions of acres of conservation land, in service of an industry that should have never been encouraged to develop in the first place.

So let’s get back to the Iowa caucuses. You probably know where I’m going with this. As any West Wing aficionado will tell you, if a candidate goes to Iowa and doesn’t pledge undying support and allegiance to ethanol, he’s toast. It’s darn near heresy to come out against ethanol there. (From personal experience, it’s impossible to drive on any road for five minutes without coming across cars with bumper stickers that say “This car powered by ethanol.”). And when candidates who win the Midwest, go to Washington and renege on their previous statements in support of ethanol, they put the region up for grabs in the next general election. As the saying goes, if you can’t win Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio, then it’s lights out for you (this might not be a real saying, but it sounds about right). This atmosphere is only intensified during caucus season.

OK, so what does this all have to do with Chris Christie? Well, just as Bush and Obama teamed up to implement our current ethanol policy, so too might a combination of odd political dynamics finally end it: Enter the Tea Party. The Tea Party, frustrated with Bush and establishment Republicans, came together as a radical wing of the Republican party at the end of the Bush administration, preaching an end to all government and employing various anarchical means of effecting that end (see the recent government shutdown and debt ceiling fiascos) throughout Obama’s tenure as President.

The problem for Republicans is that while the Tea Party polls well in places like Iowa and South Carolina, it appears to be a long shot that a Tea Party Republican will ever win a general presidential election (let’s all pause for a moment and say a prayer that this is actually true). The GOP establishment recognizes this, which is why they’ve recently thrown their support behind Chris Christie, the ornery yet likable just-reelected-in-an-overwhelmingly-Democratic-state governor of New Jersey. Yet Christie’s positions on gun control, gay marriage, and immigration mean that he probably can’t win in Iowa.

Winning Iowa means momentum; in some cases, a poor performance there can sink a campaign. Christie is therefore in a delicate position. If he remains the establishment’s choice of candidates, he’s got some work to do.

Is there another option? Why, yes: Demote the Iowa caucus, of course! Remember that the parties—who always have their eyes on the general election—have a role to play in deciding when individual states hold their primaries and caucuses. So what if the Iowa GOP, under pressure from the national party, moves Iowa’s caucus to, say, April, when Pennsylvania’s primary is held? The GOP, of course, would need a cover for such a move; they couldn’t so blatantly offend their Iowa constituents and the Tea Party without good reason. Luckily for the GOP establishment, they’ve got cover: Iowa’s too old, too white, and not representative of the country; not enough people turn out; moreover, in the last caucus, the Iowa GOP embarrassed themselves by first declaring Mitt Romney the winner, and then switching to Rick Santorum the next day. There are many reasons the GOP could cling to in an attempt to explain away Iowa’s demotion.

Were this to happen, it would leave New Hampshire in pole position, thereby stripping Iowa—and perhaps the steadfast allegiance to ethanol that comes with it—of much of its relevance. The state party members wouldn’t like it, of course, but that could mean little in the face of demands from national party leaders. Christie may well win in New Hampshire, against someone like Ted Cruz, and thereby kick off his campaign as the favorite. And isn’t that a preferable outcome for a GOP establishment that doesn’t want to see its most electable candidate sunk a year before the election is even held? It also might lead to the beginning of the end of the vice-like grip ethanol holds on our national politics.

This brings us back to Iowa. With apologies to my home state, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the less meaningful the Iowa caucuses are, the more likely a presidential candidate will summon the guts to attack the scourge that is ethanol. Forget about Christie; that’s really what this country needs.

*As it happened, I voted for Obama that cold, snowy January night in 2007—my one and only caucus experience. Our precinct meeting place—the gym of my old elementary school—couldn’t hold all the attendees (that was an exciting election season, if you’ll recall), so people were spilling into the hallways. Supporters of the various candidates eventually established strongholds in different areas of the school. It was funny to see the makeup of these groups and try to discern what they reflected about the candidate they supported. The Edwards people were mostly old and grouchy; the Hillary people were mostly middle-aged and appeared intensely worried; and the Obama people, the youngest and happiest group by far, had the most buttons. I’ll let you figure out what it all means.

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