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By Robert Rapier on Nov 1, 2006 with no responses

John McCain’s Ethanol Flip-Flop

I knew that McCain had flip-flopped on this issue. The upcoming issue of Fortune tells the tale:

McCain’s farm flip

It’s a pretty good lesson on how tough it is to oppose ethanol and get yourself elected president, since Iowa has one of the first presidential caucus. So, despite McCain’s long track record of criticizing ethanol, suddenly it’s the thing to do.

Some excerpts from the article that I found interesting:

John McCain has a problem with alcohol – ethyl alcohol, to be precise.

Ethyl alcohol is the fuel better known as ethanol, and over the years, the Arizona senator has made a habit of ripping ethanol subsidies as corporate pork for agribusinesses like Archer Daniels

McCain has argued that government support for ethanol actually raises gasoline prices. He has claimed ethanol does nothing to make the U.S. more energy independent. He has even questioned the science behind making fuel from corn – contending that ethanol provides less energy than the fossil fuels consumed to produce it.

But for a front-runner – one presumably interested in getting his as-yet-undeclared 2008 Republican presidential campaign off to a winning start – opposing ethanol is political lunacy.

Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus, is the biggest corn-growing state in the country, and in Iowa ethanol isn’t just another campaign issue. It’s the cash cow, the golden goose and the fountain of economic youth all wrapped up in one.

This is how something that is good for Iowa, but not necessarily for the rest of us, can become national policy.


Against this backdrop, it’s obvious why McCain’s past ethanol opposition is such an albatross. Fact is, criticizing ethanol is hard even for scientists these days.

At a recent BP-sponsored ethanol roundtable, University of California at Berkeley engineering professor Tad Patzek – whose anti-ethanol research McCain has invoked – so riled Roger Conway, the director of energy policy for the very pro-ethanol U.S. Department of Agriculture, that Conway told the foreign-born Patzek to “go back to Poland.” (Conway denies making the remark, but four other participants confirm he did, including pro-ethanol scientist Michael Wang of the Argonne National Laboratory.)

Here’s the before and after. The before:

For a politician like McCain, the stakes go far beyond a little name-calling. When McCain ran for president in 1999 and 2000, he barely campaigned in Iowa, knowing that his anti-ethanol stance wouldn’t cut it in corn country.

Four years later, McCain hadn’t changed his tune. “Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it,” McCain said in November 2003. “Yet thanks to agricultural subsidies and ethanol producer subsidies, it is now a very big business – tens of billions of dollars that have enriched a handful of corporate interests – primarily one big corporation, ADM. Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality.”

Even the most slippery politician would have a tough time wriggling away from a statement as unequivocal as that one, yet McCain’s Straight Talk Express has been taking some audacious detours during recent trips to Iowa.

The after:

“I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects,” he said in an August speech in Grinnell, Iowa, as reported by the Associated Press.

“Well, at least now we know he’s serious about running for president,” quips Brown University presidential politics expert Darrell West, upon being told of McCain’s ethanol about-face.

And the money quote:

“You can’t trash ethanol and expect to win in Iowa,” says Schmidt. “You can’t continue to say the same things McCain said – even if you believe they’re true.”

What to do? Maybe some other states need to move their primaries ahead of Iowa’s to stop them from having a disproportionate impact on national politics.