How To Piss Off Iowa

John McCain was for ethanol before he was against it. And oh, he was also against it before that.

McCain told a conference of renewable-energy proponents in Iowa yesterday that he opposes federal subsidies for ethanol. He argued that American farmers can still compete with growers overseas: “I trust Americans. I trust the markets. And I oppose subsidies,” he said. But this is the same guy who told Iowa voters in February that “[w]e need energy independence. We need it for a whole variety of reasons, and obviously ethanol is a big part of that equation.” Then compare that statement to his platform in 1999, when he argued during a debate that "[e]thanol is not worth it. It does not help the consumer. Those ethanol subsidies should be phased out.”

On the one hand, you could call it flip-flopping. But on the other, the ethanol issue is so complicated that it’s hard to say what constitutes a reversal. Support for ethanol is often linked to energy independence and other green agendas. For example, Hillary currently supports ethanol subsidies as part of a $150 billion energy plan meant to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. (She has voted against ethanol perks in the past.) But ethanol subsidies are also a form of protectionism, and as the government promotes ethanol and other biofuels, the price of domestic corn soars.

Because of these crisscrossing issues of the environment and trade, it’s tough to analyze the motivations behind each candidate’s stance. Both Hillary and Fred Thompson are ethanol converts, and their transformations are widely seen as pandering to voters in Iowa, the country’s largest corn grower. It’s interesting, then, that McCain would come out so brazenly against it, especially in front of the very voters he’s hoping to win over. He prides himself on his “straight talk.” But when it comes to the state’s No. 1 crop, Iowans would probably prefer his support over his bluntness. Or, better yet, that he make up his mind.