By Tim Burrack: Arlington, Iowa
Pundits say that Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks presidents.
We do grow a lot of corn on our acres here in Iowa--and our political caucuses reap a different kind of harvest. From a big field of candidates, they separate the serious from the pretenders, narrowing the range of choices for voters elsewhere.
Farmers may want to think of the process as democracy’s comparison plot: You plant a variety of seeds in different rows, testing new traits and technologies and picking winners based on yield and other quality characteristics.
Sometimes the results offer a surprise. A couple of weeks ago, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum looked like a non-factor in the Republican presidential contest. Then he enjoyed a growth spurt at exactly the right time, earning a photo-finish tie with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on Tuesday night.
If the GOP nomination comes down to a two-man race between Romney and Santorum, it will be due to the comparison-plot research that Iowans have just conducted. Voters in other states will study the results and make their own assessments, starting next week in New Hampshire.
Technically, Romney won the caucuses--but only by eight votes, out of more than 122,000 cast. It remains to be seen whether Santorum can break the pattern of this race, in which Romney has maintained a weak but consistent lead as a series of rivals have risen and fallen.
We’ve all experienced crops that appear promising early on but disappoint later. Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas congressman Ron Paul, and Texas governor Rick Perry each have enjoyed moments of opportunity--but they’ve also withered under close scrutiny.
Will Santorum? He’s the man of the hour. The good news for Republican voters is that Santorum’s 16 years in Congress--four in the House, 12 in the Senate--provide an extensive record for examination. Although Santorum is best known for his social conservatism, he has cast votes on just about everything.
Farmers who understand that their livelihood depends on access to foreign markets will discover a mixed record. Santorum has supported many of the free-trade agreements that are essential to U.S. exports in agriculture and manufacturing. He voted for deals with Australia, Chile, Morocco, Oman, and Singapore. He also favored the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which faced fierce opposition in 2005.
Yet his record also betrays a willingness to play the politics of protectionism. In 1993, Santorum opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement--and he has defended his vote ever since. "I thought that Mexico was, frankly, not going to be a particularly trustworthy trading partner at the time, and I think that proved out to be the case," he said in August. "NAFTA has been, at best, in my opinion, a wash."
This strain of populism may appeal to certain constituencies, but it doesn’t exactly present a profile in political courage.
Santorum has turned away from trade at other times as well. He supported tariffs on steel--a move that may coddle a few manufacturers in his home state, but which also raises consumer prices on all Americans, including farmers who need to buy new tractors made of affordable materials. In 1997, he proposed a special penny tax on imported honey, in a measure that the Club for Growth has described as "a special-interest giveaway."
Going forward, Santorum has said that during his first term as president, he would negotiate five new free-trade agreements. Yet he hasn’t provided specifics--and it’s unclear whether he would get behind a bold plan such as a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that could potentially include Japan, Canada and Mexico.
Romney says he’s for the TPP. But I have major concerns with his statements regarding our trade relationship with China and the potential need to add tariffs to Chinese products coming into this country. He has also outlined a plan to pursue free-trade agreements with Brazil and India as well as create a "Reagan Economic Zone" that would encourage the exchange of goods and services throughout the Americas.
The TPP is a key plank in the economic agenda of President Obama, who, by the way, won Iowa’s Democratic caucus on Tuesday (he was unopposed). Before arriving in the White House, Obama was a hardcore protectionist--but then he reversed course, delivering free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea and plotting additional progress as he tries to make good on a promise to double U.S. exports by 2015.
When Obama squares off against a Republican--whether it’s Romney, Santorum, or someone else--he’ll be able to claim, accurately, that he has increased export opportunities for American farmers and manufacturers.
Republicans will be wise to select a candidate who wants to do the same--or they may find themselves, come November, stranded in the wrong comparison plot.
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