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Politics Where Pork Is King
By Martin Kaste
August 13, 1999
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The Iowa Republican Party's presidential straw poll is Saturday, and even though the poll is unofficial and non-binding, most Republican presidential candidates have been working very hard to win it, or at least finish in the top five. Candidates in both major parties have spent a huge proportion of their time trying to woo Iowa voters. Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander claims 70 campaign trips to Iowa since the 1996 campaign. This focus on Iowa has pushed the farm crisis to the top of the issues list for this presidential campaign, but Iowans don't seem very impressed by the candidates' promises to save the family farm.

Red, white, and blue and holding babies is still a good way to get votes at the Iowa State Fair. MPR's Martin Kaste presents a slide show during a day at the fair.
IOWANS HAVE COME TO EXPECT a certain degree of personal attention from presidential candidates. This is especially true when it comes to the candidates' positions on agriculture policy. Dave Kalsem, a farmer from Cambridge, says he thinks he's settled on the candidate who he thinks would be best for agriculture - though he's reluctant to say who.
Kalsem: I want to talk to him. If I can get to talk to him a little bit, see what more he has to say about it.
Kalsem is probably justified in expecting a private one-on-one with his candidate of choice, or at least one of the candidates. All the Republicans in the race - except John McCain - have spent the summer traversing the state; trying to collect supporters who'll vote in the August 14 Republican straw poll. The Democrats, Vice-President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley, have also had last-minute swings through the state, to share some of the media attention being generated by the Republican poll.

At a meet-and-greet on a local Democrat's front porch in Des Moines, Bill Bradley talks about the importance of saving small farms.
Bradley: If you have an agri-business owning large farms, you have the beginning of a vertically-integrated monopoly.
When Bradley represented New Jersey in the U.S. Senate, he opposed federal subsidies for ethanol, a program many critics consider a subsidy for corn-growers. Now that he's campaigning in Iowa, he's reversed himself, pledging, in his words, "no raids on ethanol." He says the combination of bumper crops with near-record low prices constitutes the "worst farm crisis in a generation," and he lays much of the blame on the Republican-sponsored "Freedom to Farm Act of 1996," which phased out federal subsidies and limits on production.
Bradley: Freedom to Farm hasn't been successful. We need to think about new products, we need to take land out of production, we need to have it so the public will be able to buy that brand, "family farm" brand of pork, or whatever.
Still, neither he nor Vice President Al Gore are calling for a full-scale repeal of "Freedom to Farm." Many farmers like the new ability to plant what they want, when they want. Instead, the Democrats are offering changes in the mechanics of how farmers sell their product, such as forcing grain companies and meat packers to reveal how much they pay for crops in different parts of the country.

"Porch Politics" dominates in Iowa. At a meet-and-greet on a local Democrat's front porch in Des Moines, Bill Bradley talks about the importance of saving small farms.
Photo: Martin Kaste
Most Republicans defend the Freedom to Farm Act, but they say the Clinton Administration hasn't implemented it properly. Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander is the Republican who's spent the most time talking about the issues with Iowa farmers, and his view parallels that of most of Republicans in the race.
Alexander: Part of the promise of Freedom To Farm was to open markets, and we're not opening markets. This president is the first president since Nixon not to get the Congress to give him the power to negotiate trade in fast track. He's not using export credits, he's not retaliating against the Europeans. He's not living up to his promise.
Other Republicans - primarily those who are running behind in the polls and in fund-raising - see other factors at work in the farm crisis. Former Vice President Dan Quayle says the Federal Reserve and rising interest rates are to blame.
Quayle: I'm focusing on deflation. I'm trying to get Alan Greenspan out here to recognize that we have deflation on the farm. We have Clinton/Gore/Greenspan giving the farmer the cold shoulder.
Conservative TV commentator Pat Buchanan also blames the banking system, but he takes it further; saying the administration and New York banks favor the interests of foreign producers over American farmers.
Buchanan: We've shoveled out all this IMF (International Monetary Fund) money to these countries, and these countries got to make money to pay back the New York banks, and the only way they can make money is to dump goods in the United States. And so the American farmer and worker and industry has been sacrificed on the altar of the global economy, which has been structured for the benefit of Goldman Sachs.
Surprisingly, Buchanan - widely considered to occupy the right wing of Republican ideology - is more willing than the Democrats to consider bringing back some version of the old subsidies and price-guarantees structure. He calls the "Freedom to Farm Act" an "experiment noble in purpose that has failed."
Buchanan: You do want the American farmer basically to work in a free market, but with a safety net under him for the vicissitudes of weather and conditions, and global markets, and the rest. I mean, a farmer is someone who can make a tremendous amount one year, and go deeply in debt the next year, through no fault of his own.
Buchanan's views actually seem to resemble those of some left-leaning farm activists, such as Iowa Farmers Union president John Whittaker.

Manning the Farmers Union booth in the Ag Building at the Iowa State Fair, Whittaker says he wants the next president to promote a grain-reserve system that would do more to prevent gluts in the market, and he wants the next Justice Department to investigate the big commodities companies more aggressively for possible price-fixing. Whittaker's a Democrat, and he thinks Al Gore is the candidate most likely to deliver those changes. He says Gore told him as much in a personal conversation just the other day. But Whittaker says he's also a realist about what might happen to those promises.
Whittaker: After the caucus next winter, I hope they don't just leave us. Evaporate like frost off a windshield, you know.
MPR: You're afraid they might?
Whittaker: I've seen this happen in the past. Like I said, the vice president said all the right things yesterday. We've got to get some action.