Friday, September 26, 2008

Looking for rural issues in the presidential debates

Tonight's presidential debate is supposed to be about foreign policy, and the credit crisis is likely to intrude, so no rural issues may be mentioned. But it's worth thinking about what rural voters should be looking for, and Doug Burns interviewed me and others about that this week for the Iowa Independent, an online news outlet.

Iowa Republican insider David Oman, a former GOP gubernatorial candidate, told Doug, “Sen. McCain’s opposition to ethanol subsidies probably gets buried by the much larger economic issues of the day. Both candidates should keep rural voters in their vocabulary as they speak to these issues; rural voters often feel forgotten.”

To read Doug's report, click here. Here's what I told him:

In the arena of foreign policy, the only issues of specific interest to rural voters that might come up have to do with energy and trade. Here’s a logical question on that front, one that folks in farm country deserve an answer to: How would each candidate resolve the new Farm Bill’s failure to comply with the World Trade Organization? But I don’t expect such a question to come up Friday night because, as a national security and foreign policy issue, it ranks relatively low.

On energy and the need for independence from foreign oil, Obama could point out McCain’s opposition to the ethanol subsidy and the renewable fuels standard that requires a certain total percentage of ethanol to be used in gasoline, and McCain could counter by saying he opposed the Farm Bill as a whole because the subsidies are too large and gas prices are too high. That would be off-topic, and perhaps risk losing some farm-state votes, but in the current credit-crunch climate, where voters are fed up with lobbying interests’ influence in Washington, such an exchange about ethanol could benefit McCain.

In later debates, there is more opportunity for questions on rural interests. I’d like to know if they favor a ‘hard cap’ on total subsidy payments to any one recipient. North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) and Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley (R) proposed a $200,000 cap, which failed to make it into the Farm Bill because it couldn’t get 60 votes in the Senate. Main reason: Opposition from cotton and rice farmers, whose states are not much in play this fall. Also, do they favor a ban on meatpacker ownership of livestock, which is squeezing independent producers as packers consolidate? The ban, pushed by Grassley, was removed from the Farm Bill in the conference committee.

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