DES MOINES, Iowa — The political operative, a man named Monte Shaw, pointed to the poured concrete floor and drew an imaginary box that he said Jeb Bush was standing in, metaphorically speaking.
“I thought Bush was fine. Right now we have him in the pro [Renewable Fuel Standard] box,” Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said. “What I heard was, ‘Hey, I'm gonna keep it in place.’”
This was the sort of conversation that took place in an assembly hall at the Iowa State Fairgrounds here on Saturday after Bush made his first onstage appearance as a likely presidential candidate in the state, whose caucuses in 2016 will kick off primary balloting.
The event was unprecedented in the state’s political history: Nine potential presidential candidates, including Bush, trekked to Iowa specifically to sit on a stage and answer questions not from a journalist, but from businessman Bruce Rastetter, a “pork and ethanol giant” who has become a political player in the state over the past several years. Iowa political observers said they’d never seen anything quite like it.
Rastetter asked the same set of questions, with a few variations, to each potential candidate at the 2015 Iowa Ag Summit. At the top of his priority list was to get each politician on record, in Iowa, on where they stand on the Renewable Fuel Standard, which was created in 2005 and requires each gallon of transportation fuel sold in the U.S. to include 10 percent renewable fuels, with a certain percentage of that being ethanol, a corn-based fuel that’s crucial to Iowa’s economy.
“Iowa has largely missed out on this last recession because of the success of our renewable energy sector,” said Ron Heck, past president of the Iowa Soybean Association.
Bill Couser, co-chairman of America’s Renewable Future, the group organizing the event, bluntly laid out the agriculture sector’s calculus heading into the event Saturday. Their “challenge” for potential candidates, he said, was, “You support us, we’ll support you.”
Most of the possible candidates fell into one of two camps. They were for the RFS, with two exceptions. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have stated in the past that they favor ending the RFS and did not veer from that position onstage with Rastetter. In response, ARF sent out a press release while the event was still going slapping Perry and Cruz down in sharply worded language.
“Cruz, Perry Need Education on Renewable Fuel, While Other Leading Candidates Support Renewable Fuel Standard,” the group said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was unequivocal in his rhetoric on the RFS, a response certain to please the organizers. “The law requires it,” he said.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who currently leads in Iowa polls, reversed his position on the issue. In the past he has expressed opposition to ethanol subsidies, but on Saturday he said that because ethanol does not have full access to the fuel market, the RFS should be continued for now. “It’s something I’m willing to go forward on continuing a Renewable Fuel Standard,” Walker said. He said it should be phased out at some point in the future, but did not specify when.
However, after Bush sat down with Rastetter, listeners were left debating what he’d actually said.
Bush said that the RFS “has worked, for sure” and “has been a benefit” because it has “reduced our dependence on foreign oil.” But he also gave a nod to the more conservative elements of the GOP who oppose government support for industry and corporations.
“I would suggest to you that ultimately, whether it’s ethanol or any other alternative fuel, renewable or otherwise, the markets ultimately are going to decide this,” Bush said. “At some point we’ll see a reduction of the RFS need because ethanol will be such a valuable part of the energy piece of our country. Whether that’s 2022 or sometime in the future I don’t know.”
That sounded like a knock on the RFS. But Couser, Shaw and other renewable fuel advocates noted that the law actually requires the phasing out of the RFS in 2022.
Immediately after Bush finished speaking, Craig Robinson, a widely read conservative blogger who runs the Iowa Republican website, said he thought Bush was coming down ever so slightly against the RFS in a play for hardcore conservatives.
“Bush didn’t come out and say that he outright opposed the Renewable Fuel Standard and wind tax credit, but he didn’t embrace them either. Bush essentially took a similar position to Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul by saying that ultimately the market should decide,” Robinson wrote in an e-mail.
Robinson thought this might be an attempt to win over conservatives who are unhappy with Bush’s moderation on immigration and education, a move with dubious prospect for success and one that could hurt him in a general election, when voters in both parties will want federal support for Iowa’s economy.
But the renewable fuel and ethanol advocates said they were generally happy about Bush’s appearance, though they wanted to get more clarification.
“He's doing a little bit of dancing,” Shaw said. “Bush was pretty good, but we probably need to clarify just to make sure we heard what we thought we did.”
Couser said he wanted to follow up with Bush as well. “I'm anxious to sit down with him. ... I would really like to get a definite answer. He kind of sidestepped it."
Another ARF adviser, who asked not to be named, put it more bluntly: “We felt pretty good about it,” he said of Bush’s comments.
An Iowa Farm Bureau official added that Bush’s comments “keep him in the wheelhouse, keep him in the game.”
Bush’s first trip here to the Hawkeye State included a fundraiser Friday night with first-term congressman David Young, a Republican from southwest Iowa; a private meeting with volunteers and activists at a barbecue restaurant in West Des Moines; and a meet and greet with voters at a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids, two hours east of Des Moines.
Another question that Rastetter asked each candidate was about genetically modified crops and whether food manufacturers should be required to label food that is modified. A group of protesters outside the event in the morning held signs demanding that such a requirement be passed into law. To a man, each Republican said they were opposed to requiring labeling.
But some, including Bush, said they were in favor of requiring that food be labeled with its country of origin. When he and his family make guacamole at home, Bush said, “I want to know where that avocado is from.”