Tim Pawlenty's Uncourageous Stand Against Ethanol

Iowa often drives candidates to defend the ethanol subsidies that benefit the state. Pawlenty has bucked the trend. But as Michael Tomasky explains, the move is less gutsy than it looks.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announced his bid for the Republican nomination in Des Moines, Iowa, while telling corn-dependent state that its federal subsidies for ethanol should be phased out. (AP Photo; Jonathan Ernst, Reuters / Landov)

Of all the misused words in the lexicon of punditocracy, “courageous” is easily the word most often misapplied. Remember when Paul Ryan’s budget plan was “courageous,” for about a week, before most people realized it was dishonest and/or nuts? It was a classic example of the genre: political journalists have certain idees fixe about the so-called hard facts of political life, and when a politician appears to confront one of them, he’s instantly dubbed courageous.

Today’s example is Tim Pawlenty. In announcing his presidential candidacy on Monday, the Minnesota Republican won the appellation by saying that it was time to end ethanol subsidies. This is considered courageous because of Iowa’s place on the political calendar, and because Iowa gets and loves those ethanol subsidies. And let’s give Pawlenty his due. His stance is certainly risky, and it’s nobler than the position taken by Al Gore in 2000, for example, which was to go against his better instincts (as he later admitted) and support ethanol subsidies even though he knew that corn-based ethanol is hardly more “green” than gasoline.

But let’s not get carried away. Remember the Newtonian rule of power politics: for every interest that wants X, there is an opposing interest that wants Not X. The interest in this case is, of course, the ethanol industry, reliant on roughly $7 billion a year in subsidies. The opposing interest? Oil and gas, largely—the producers of traditional energy. Bearing this fact in mind, we might conclude that Pawlenty’s attack on ethanol subsidies is less a courageous act of political derring-do than a nod to an industry that invests millions in Republican politics and whose single most heavily invested corporation, according to opensecrets.org, is our old friend Koch Industries.

In the 2009-2010 election cycle, the Koch brothers spent $1.9 million in political donations. I don’t have a breakdown on the partisan split of Koch money, but for the industry as a whole, donations were about 3.5-1 in favor of Republicans. So it just could be that while Pawlenty is bracing himself for those testy town-hall meetings in Waterloo and Sioux City, he can take some comfort in the fact that Koch industries, Exxon Mobil, and other large oil donors are looking down smiling.

Any time a politician feels the need to pat himself on the back as much as Pawlenty did in his announcement speech, you should immediately raise your BS deflector shields.

They have plenty to smile about in Pawlenty’s case. Here’s a report from just last month from Think Progress, describing Pawlenty’s participation in two Koch-related events in New Hampshire. TP’s Lee Fang writes:

As Pawlenty strives for the Kochs’ and other conservatives’ approval, he has changed his beliefs, most notably on climate change. When he was governor, Pawlenty strongly endorsed action to curb carbon emissions and even attacked the Bush administration for not setting up a cap and trade system. Now, he doesn’t believe that man-made climate change exists.

Yes, Pawlenty was once a reasonably green governor for a Republican. That began to change in 2009. He’d once backed cap-and-trade legislation. Then he started using it as a punch line. Again, the oil interests were surely smiling.

Or maybe Pawlenty is trying to appeal to tea-party, fiscal-disciplinarian sentiment. So speculates the Times today in its coverage of Pawlenty’s announcement. But as Ben Adler reported on Newsweek.com last December, the Iowa Tea Party had taken no position on ethanol subidies.

The Think Progress report cited above spells out the ways in the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire chapter is gearing up to play a big role in that state’s primary. So maybe Pawlenty is pursuing a strategy here. Perhaps he’s basically writing off Iowa, because the caucus-going electorate is so Christian-right dominated, and that’s not really his thing, and he assumes that someone (Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin) will get in the race who has more juice with that crowd. So he’ll take a silver or bronze there and try to challenge Romney head-on in New Hampshire. Remember, history tells us that finishing a strong second in New Hampshire can be interpreted by the media as a win: Gene McCarthy in 1968, Pat Buchanan in 1992. Remember also that independents vote in the New Hampshire primary, and Pawlenty may be targeting them for some support if Romney tacks hard right.

Again, Pawlenty deserves a little credit here. Corn-based ethanol subsidies should end. Iowa’s prominent place on the political calendar should end, too—a change that would in time kill the subsidies. But read the passage in his announcement speech where he spotlights his courage in taking on ethanol. Any time a politician feels the need to pat himself on the back that much, you should immediately raise your BS deflector shields. A path that has bags of oil and gas money sitting at the end point isn’t quite as courageous as all that.

Newsweek/Daily Beast Special Correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.