Countdown to November

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

As I write this, Congress has just returned from five weeks on the road, the national political conventions are history – on so many levels – and the media is aggressively searching with both hands for its own back end, desperately seeking the meaning of the respective presidential tickets.

Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) threw the first curve ball, selecting Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) to join him on the Democrat ticket, a choice less connected to “change,” it seems to me, than akin to hiring a good tutor. Then Senator John McCain (R-AZ), playing more the bad boy than the “maverick,” opted for Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the long-shot selection and one that left everyone scratching their collective head, asking “Sarah who?,” and, at least in Washington, DC, muttering, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

The campaign after the conventions was all about Palin all the time. The media dug so deep into Palin’s personal and professional life it no doubt cleared the permafrost and struck gold at some point. This press feeding frenzy is, unfortunately, typical, but should be no surprise to McCain. He committed the unpardonable sin of surprising the Washington press corps, the political equivalent of poking a bear with a stick. Any discovery about Palin, however, will be vetted strongly under the “who cares?” rule, and so far, no one’s paying much attention to whether she was second or third choice for Miss Alaska in 1984, how much per diem she charged the state during her 600-mile hike from Wasilla to Juneau, or whether her full-blooded Inuit husband got a driving under the influence citation when he was 22 years old.

Obama’s choice of Biden was designed in part to balance the ticket when it comes to age, but more to calm the fears of those who argue Obama is too inexperienced to be president. Biden, a veteran of nearly 40 years in the Senate and the chairmanships of two of the Senate’s most powerful committees – foreign relations and judiciary – can get things done in Washington, and after several unsuccessful personal bids for president, vice president is as close as he’s likely to get to the White House. There are those who say putting two Senators on the ticket screams inside Washington baseball when Obama has chanted the exact opposite philosophy since he began his run. The ticket also creates an urban Chicago/East Coast nexus, exacerbating the “left out” feelings of those in fly-over states. Biden is the consummate pro, but he has a habit of “shooting from the lip,” as one pundit put it, entertaining in any other context save a presidential race.

The biggest advantage to McCain is that Palin has reenergized the GOP. Folks who were sitting grumbling about McCain are now doing a happy dance. McCain’s choice of Palin is a “two-fer.” Her politics are much more conservative than McCain’s so she appeals strongly to the GOP conservative base – a base that has already moved to defend her against any mud that might be slung. Her gender appeals to independent female voters, along with a chunk of those women dedicated to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) who continue to believe Obama done the Senator from New York wrong. Palin is pitched as the “everywoman” candidate, the hockey mom packaged to show that the GOP is “just like you and me,” to steal a line from Michelle Obama’s Democratic convention speech.

However, two terms as mayor of a small suburb of Anchorage (45 miles away in Alaska apparently still qualifies as suburb), and two years as governor do not make for an awe-inspiring resume, though her record of achievement is laudable and her reputation as a “reformer” seems solid. She proved in her make-or-break convention speech she’s tough enough to handle the pressure of a national campaign, but there continue to be serious doubts about her sitting in the heir-apparent slot should something happen to McCain if he’s elected.

As I write this, we’re about 55 days from the November 4, 2008, election, and the tickets are what they are, upsides and downsides obvious to all. Where does agriculture and rural America fall in the great scheme of either ticket? Since the beginning of primary season in Iowa so long ago, neither candidate has had much to say about rural and agriculture issues.

Obama’s public policies on agriculture and rural America parallel those of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, at least from what’s been posted to the Obama campaign Web site. He’s all for a strong rural America, wants to encourage young folks to get into farming, sides with Harkin on banning packer ownership of livestock and contracting issues, and wants to see renewable bioenergy wrung from every crop and animal husbanded on U.S. farms – and some that aren’t.

However, Obama needs to break out and set his own agenda. His campaign is far ahead of McCain’s when it comes to rural outreach, and his ag advisors generally hail from the National Farmers Union (NFU) mold. He has a rural/agriculture team that’s going directly to the heartland, a base of voters it knows is one of the most skeptical of an Obama presidency. His team is engaged in a very smart strategy – eschew the conventional Washington national ag group courtships in favor of getting as close to main street as it can by talking directly to executives, farmers, and residents in small towns. The obvious goal is to give folks input, generating buzz about the candidate, with the central message being, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Obama gets it.”

Who would Obama select as agriculture secretary should he win? Sitting Democrat state ag secretaries and governors notwithstanding, there are three names that consistently crop up in conversation. The first is former Representative Charlie Stenholm (D-TX), a moderate/independent son of the Lone Star State, founder of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House, and former ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. He lost his seat as part of former Representative Tom DeLay’s (R-TX) orchestrated redistricting of Texas’ congressional districts.

Next is Tom Buis, president of the NFU. A Washington veteran, Buis has held significant Capitol Hill jobs. Smart and less-than-radical in his views, he was a key player in the 2008 farm bill. Third is Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Though he’s said publicly several times he’s not in the running, he’s got serious chits stored up from his shepherding of the 2008 farm bill and his status as a loyal lieutenant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

McCain takes his cues on agriculture and rural issues from the Farm Bureau playbook. His advisory team during the primaries boasted several southern Farm Bureau names. His record in the Senate gives little clue to his positions on rural and agriculture issues, but he raised more than one eyebrow in Washington when he voted against the 2008 farm bill over its sheer cost and special interest earmarks. His McCain Farm and Ranch Team has just begun its outreach effort, concentrating on Washington groups and large state farm organizations.

Should McCain win in November, the reorganization of the administration would likely be less comprehensive than in an Obama administration, and several major players in the Bush administration could be asked to hang in there for a few months to give the new administration time to find and vet candidates for both cabinet and subcabinet jobs.

There are no clear front runners when it comes to a McCain secretary of agriculture. Most talked about is sitting Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner, former presidential special assistant on food, agriculture, and trade; former staff director of the Senate Agriculture Committee; and a guy who lost his last bid for the top U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) job when President George W. Bush tapped former North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer to replace Mike Johanns when he resigned to run for the Senate. Many speculate that after eight years in the Bush administration, Conner may be eager to change careers.

Another name emerging is USDA Under Secretary Mark Keenum, who runs foreign agriculture and farm programs. Keenum, with a resume very similar to Conner’s, cut his teeth on Capitol Hill as ag staffer and chief of staff to Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS). A PhD in agriculture economics, Keenum is well-liked in Washington and in the country. He would also bring a southerner into a job that has never really reflected the reality of the shift in U.S. agriculture production – and rural political clout – to south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Let’s hope the soap opera of vice presidential selection is over and both the candidates and the media will begin to concentrate on the issues. Obama needs to quit running against Palin and start running against McCain. McCain needs to be careful he’s not eclipsed by his own running mate. A poll out in early September showed 89 percent of eligible voters claim to be paying close attention to the presidential and congressional races. Let’s hope the folks out there asking for our votes give us what we want – more steak, and less popcorn.

View from Washington – October 2008 RENDER | back