Tim Pawlenty Opens Campaign In Iowa With Call To End Ethanol Subsidies

You don't often see a candidate for President tell Iowans that he wants to eliminate ethanol subsidies, but Tim Pawlenty did.

I’m still skeptical about Tim Pawlenty’s long-term chances in the race for the GOP nomination, and I have serious reservations about his ties to the evangelical wing of the GOP, but I’ve got say that his kickoff message in Iowa was bolder than I thought it would be:

DES MOINES, Iowa – Tim Pawlenty formally launched his campaign for president on Monday with a straight talk message explicitly geared to tackle sacred cows in Iowa, Florida, New York and Washington.

“Politicians are often afraid that if they’re too honest, they might lose an election,” the former Minnesota governor told a town hall here on a terrace of the State Historical Building. “I’m afraid that in 2012, if we’re not honest enough, we may lose our country.”

Pawlenty’s first bit of honesty was for the Iowans: The federal government must phase out ethanol subsidies — key in this corn-heavy state — in order to drive more investment and innovation in the industry.

“We need to get government out,” he said. “We also need the government out of the business of handing out favors and special deals. The free market, not freebies from politicians, should decide a company’s success. So, as part of a larger reform, we need to phase out subsidies across all sources of energy and all industries, including ethanol. We simply can’t afford them anymore.”

As governor of Minnesota, Pawlenty said, he had reduced ethanol subsidies, and he vowed that they could be drawn down “gradually” and “fairly.”

The next stop on Pawlenty’s straight talk tour will be on Tuesday in Florida, where he’ll tell young people and seniors that the country must “gradually raise” the Social Security retirement age. He called for means testing Social Security’s annual cost-of-living adjustment, instituting pay-for-performance incentives in Medicare and block granting Medicaid to the states.

Pawlenty will go to Washington the next day, where he’ll “remind the federal bureaucracy that government exists to serve its citizens, not its employees.”

“The truth is, people getting paid by the taxpayers shouldn’t get a better deal than the taxpayers themselves,” he said. “That means freezing federal salaries, transitioning federal employee benefits, and downsizing the federal workforce as it retires. It means paying public employees for results, not just seniority.”

Then he’ll be off to Wall Street.

“I’m going to New York City, to tell Wall Street that if I’m elected, the era of bailouts, handouts, and carve outs are over,” he said. “No more subsidies, no more special treatment. No more Fannie and Freddie, no more TARP, and no more ‘too big to fail.’

The ethanol announcement is an interesting one because it’s long been accepted wisdom that anyone running in the Iowa caucuses needs to take “the pledge” and tell the farmers of Iowa that they will  support Federal subsidies for ethanol. Even if they’ve opposed them in the past. The dilemma this places on candidates was the focus of a sixth season episode of The West Wing called “King Corn” which followed the three main candidates for President through the events leading up to their speech to the Iowa Corn Growers. Two of those candidates, Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick, had opposed ethanol subsidies while in Congress. Santos listened to his campaign manager and took the pledge, Vinick didn’t. At the end of the episode, the two candidates met in a snow-bound hotel restaurant and Santos told Vinick he wished he’d had the courage to do what he’d done. Vinick said that he’d just lost Iowa. Pawlenty chose the Vinick route.

Pawlenty’s a midwestern Governor whose taken on ethanol subsidies before, so he’s remaining consistent with his previous position, but he’s also taking a political risk in a state that he will need to perform well in if his campaign is to go much past February 2012. Philip A. Klein doesn’t think he’s taking as some think:

Most presidential announcements produce no news, but Pawlenty’s call for ending ethanol subsidies likely will draw headlines, and not just any headlines, but headlines that coincide with the theme of his campaign — that he’ll tell the truth. And he added that, “Tomorrow, I’m going to Florida to tell both young people and seniors the truth that our entitlement programs are on an unsustainable path and that inaction is no longer an option.”

And while Pawlenty will draw kudos for coming out against ethanol subsidies, it’s unlikely that in this current environment, any of his Republican opponents will attack him on it, because if they do, it will only make Pawlenty look better and them look bad to conservative voters outside of Iowa.

So not only did Pawlenty mke the right call, it’s also one that’s a net gainer for him politically. But in a larger sense, hopefully, this is an indication of the tide turning against a terrible policy

Klein does have a point in that Pawlenty’s position does track well with the “Time For Truth” theme that he uses in the announcement video that was released last night:

Like I said, I’ve still got a lot of doubts about Pawlenty but I’ll give him credit for walking into Iowa and telling the corn growers that he wants to end their subsidies. Most politicians don’t have those kind of guts.

Update: David Frum points out that losing Iowa isn’t necessary fatal to a campaign:

Bonus skill-testing question: since 1976, how many non-incumbent Republicans have won the Iowa caucuses and proceeded to win the party nomination? Answer: only one, George W. Bush.

So maybe it’s smart to blow them off and score integrity points for later.

Perhaps but it’s also the case that Pawlenty is going to need an early victory to give his campaign credibility, and Iowa seems to be the best place for that.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Deficit and Debt, Environment, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Vast Variety says:

    As an Iowan I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority when I say I agree that the subsidies should be ended. But most of the folks around here would call them fighting words just to suggest it.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I give him major credit for this. If next week he admits we’re going to have to raise taxes I’ll even think about voting for him. Let’s see if he’s got those kind of balls.

  3. ponce says:

    Pawlenty makes me nostalgic for Gomer Pyle:


  4. mattb says:

    Beyond following his own person convictions on this issue, it seems a shrewd political move on multiple counts. Last I checked, while well positioned for the primary, he’s by no means a shoe-in.

    Taking this position will make conservatives talkers (who are essentially coasters and against ethanol subsidies) happy. If he wins Iowa, he can proclaim that this is evidence that the US/Repubs are serious about making the hard decisions necessary to win.

    If he lose Iowa (as long as he places close), this can be spun, going into New Hampshire, that he’s about telling the hard truths even if it costs him a particular race. That is sure to appeal to NH voters.

    This seems an excellent path for an underdog to take (and in many ways is a page out of the Obama 08 playbook).

  5. Hey Norm says:

    It took large attachments to take that stand. It will be interesting to see how it plays. It’s not like he hasn’t back-peddled before. But good for him so far.

  6. Gustopher says:

    When he says “no more too big to fail”, is he talking about breaking up the large financial institutions so the failure of one does not bring the whole system down, or is he just going to let the whole system fall down?

  7. Franklin says:

    Mitt vs. Tim, it’s on. I’ll give Tim a +1 for this one.

  8. Alex Knapp says:

    Points to Pawlenty for this.

    Minus points, though, for that cringe-inducing, godawful video. Don’t they focus group these things?

  9. wr says:

    Sure, the corn thing is great. Then he follows it up by saying that old people should live in poverty and the federal government should treat its workers like crap, because that’s what it’s gonna take to make the world safe for tax cuts for the ultra rich. Just another Republican creep who wants to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and middle class, pretending to be a truth teller.

  10. john personna says:

    I give him major credit for this. If next week he admits we’re going to have to raise taxes I’ll even think about voting for him.


  11. A voice from another precinct says:

    wr presents a nice counterpoint interpretation to the message. I’ll give Pawlenty credit thought, not many guys would start a campaign run by shooting themseleves in the foot on so many consecutive days. Will he “eat the gun” and say tax increases? Doooooon’t Think soooooo.

  12. Dodd says:

    Someone tell Stacy McCain it’s not too late to jump about the Tim Pawlenty 2012 Victory Bandwagon.

  13. michael reynolds says:


    Was it the way he explained that he could give us balloons?

    R…e…d ones.

    W…h…i…t…e ones.

    B…l…u…e ones.

    Is that what set the cringe into motion? Because he is not giving us those balloons, Alex. Oh, he could. He totally could. But he’s not going to.

    Pawlenty to balloons: fvck you!

  14. stuhlmann says:

    As long as he is in Florida, perhaps he can tell the sugar growers that their subsidies and protection from foreign growers needs to end.

    And while he is in Washington, he can go by Congress and remind them that they are part of the government that exists to serve its citizens. That they too are paid for by the taxpayers and shouldn’t get better deals than the taxpayers themselves.

  15. Lorne Marr says:

    Maybe his honesty will make some of his supporters in Iowa vote for a different candidate but he has shown that he will always remain true to his own principles. This is the kind of personal quality that every politician running for presidency should possess because otherwise the interests of the rich and influential people will prevail over the interests of ordinary people.