Ethanol Undergoes Evolution as Political Issue

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), speaking last month at a conference on energy, calls for a $50 billion strategic investment in alternative energy technologies.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), speaking last month at a conference on energy, calls for a $50 billion strategic investment in alternative energy technologies. (By Dennis Brack -- Bloomberg News)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What's the closest thing in politics to a religious experience? The ethanol conversion.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) experienced one in May of last year. Long opposed to federal support for the corn-based biofuel, she reversed herself and endorsed even bigger ethanol incentives than she previously voted against. Now running for president, Clinton is promoting a $50 billion strategic energy fund, laden with more ethanol perks.

Political opponents depict Clinton's about-face as pandering to Iowa Democrats, who will cast the first votes of the 2008 nominating season. When the senator made her first trip to Iowa in January, the Republican National Committee circulated a synopsis of her ethanol record, awash with "no" votes. "A Calculating Clinton Flips on Ethanol to Score a Run with Iowa Voters," the headline read.

Although the timing of Clinton's shift tracks neatly with the primary calendar, it also coincides with an ethanol boomlet in New York state, along with a nationwide surge in alternative fuel demand. For years, ethanol was disparaged beyond the Corn Belt as a farm subsidy disguised as an environmental cause. Now it is accepted as a mainstream solution to global warming and oil imports. Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an ethanol foe so fierce that he skipped the Iowa caucuses in 2000, says he is willing to give it another look.

As ethanol becomes more accepted, it appears to be losing its potency as a presidential campaign issue. That means Clinton's reversal may not translate into much of an advantage for, say, Sen. Barack Obama (D), whose Illinois political roots have made him a natural ethanol crusader. A senior Clinton aide explained that the senator's views shifted as the industry took hold in her own back yard and as the nation's energy demands changed.

Iowa voters understand those evolving circumstances, said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "Nowadays, I think they kind of expect people to be for ethanol -- whether they're newly born-again ethanol people, or old-fashioned, long-term ethanol people."

Ethanol became a political cause in the early 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo raised voter concerns about U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and it got its first federal assistance in a 1978 energy tax bill. It took a while to catch on. A 1986 Department of Agriculture study predicted ethanol could not survive long-term without "massive government subsidies."

Candidates campaigning in Iowa faced a simple choice: pander to caucus-goers by vowing to lavishly fund ethanol, or reject it and hope to be rewarded for fiscal integrity. It was an especially tricky choice for GOP politicians, because Iowa farmers lean Republican.

But starting in the 2004 presidential cycle, public and internal campaign polls have showed that Democratic caucus-goers in particular rate agricultural issues lower than other concerns, including the economy, the Iraq war, health care and education.

"It's the lore that if you come to Iowa and you want to campaign here, you want to understand that ethanol is vital to the state," said Des Moines-based pollster J. Ann Selzer, whose January survey found 92 percent of Iowa voters rated ethanol as important to the state's economic future. "But it's perfectly reasonable for someone's opinion to shift as the world has shifted."

McCain's reversal has been almost as dramatic as Clinton's. In a 1999 Des Moines debate, the senator bluntly said: "Ethanol is not worth it. It does not help the consumer. Those ethanol subsidies should be phased out."

Campaigning in Iowa last month, where he is trailing GOP candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, McCain told voters: "We need energy independence. We need it for a whole variety of reasons, and obviously ethanol is a big part of that equation."

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