McCain hearts ethanol

It turns out that the Straight Talk Express is a flex-fuel vehicle: when the going gets rough, John McCain is willing to fill up on ethanol in order to keep his dreams of winning the White House alive. On the stump this week in Iowa - the king of the corn states - McCain told voters that his administration would “invest in all energy alternatives: nuclear, wind, tide, solar, ethanol, biofuels.” He added: “On the subject of ethanol, my friends, I will open every market in the world to the best products in the world, and that’s the American agricultural farmer and worker.”

That raises more questions than it answers - ethanol is barely competitive in the US, where it benefits from a $1-a-gallon tariff-and-subsidy package, so it’s unclear how McCain intends to export the stuff. Still, his statements mark a clear shift in tone for a candidate who’s made his opposition to ethanol subsidies a centerpiece of his straight-talking political persona. This is a man, after all, who in 2003 witheringly dismissed ethanol as “a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it” and declared that the stuff does “nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by McCain’s change in heart. In the summer of 2006, when he still thought his road to the Republican nomination might run through Iowa, McCain told voters: “I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects.” It was only when Iowans spurned his advances that McCain reverted to blasting ethanol as the mother of all pork projects. Now McCain needs Iowans’ votes once more, so he’s pivoted on his heel and gone back to cheering for the biofuel boondoggle.

Of course, while McCain’s flip-flopping is lamentable, he’s hardly the only politician pandering to Iowans. Barack Obama drank the corn-ethanol Kool-Aid long ago, although he’s tempered his language somewhat in recent weeks. And McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, engaged in a little freelance ethanol boosterism last week, giving rise to speculation that she was positioning herself for a 2012 presidential run. One way or another, it looks like ethanol will remain part of the American political equation for some time to come.

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