Democrats Debate Ag, Energy and Trade
Democrats were asked about farm policy, trade and energy Thursday afternoon — all issues important to rural communities. Here are their answers.
Outside Thursday's Democratic debate in Johnston, Iowa.
Photo: Danny Engesser
The Democrats met for the last time before the January 3, 2008, Iowa caucuses. They debated at the behest of the Des Moines Register newspaper. Editor Carolyn Washburn did the questioning Thursday afternoon — and there were a few instances where the candidates talked about issues of concern to Yonder.
The full transcript is here . If you scroll to the tippy end, you can see what the candidates will vow as New Year's resolutions. Joe Biden wants to "remember where I came from," which seems achievable. Barack Obama wants to be a better father and husband. Bill Richardson has a repeat: he wants to lose weight.
We pulled out three areas that are of concern to rural communities: farm policy, trade and energy. Below, find the straight transcript on these three subjects of the debate.
MS. WASHBURN: The Senate on Tuesday rejected a proposal to replace traditional subsidies for certain crops and shift the money to conservation and nutrition and biofuels program. It would have replaced the subsidies with an insurance program tied to farm revenues.
Senators, none of you were there for the vote. How would you have voted, and why? You have one minute, starting with Senator Dodd.
SEN. DODD: Well, I'm going to put it forward. I think Tom Harkin's been doing a terrific job in — in changing the direction, the reforms of agriculture. And the idea of encouraging more conservation, being good custodians of the land — I often point it out here, as I travel around the state, that people have reminded me that Iowa represents as much as 10 percent, maybe more, of the most fertile land in the world here, and the generation of Iowans here, all of us bear responsibility to see to it that this incredible world global resource is going to be preserved and protected.
So moving in a direction here that encourages the diversity of farming in this state, I think, makes a great deal of sense — that encourages conservation and alternative uses are ones that all of us ought to support, not only Iowans but across this country, so that we preserve this very valuable resource for fiber, food and energy, as you're developing here in this state.
MS. WASHBURN: Senator Obama?
SEN. OBAMA: You know, I have made as a centerpiece for my rural- farm agenda that we lower the subsidies, that we cap the subsidies, because too many of them are going to agribusiness. We've got folks in Manhattan who are getting farm subsidies. We've got Fortune 500 companies who are getting farm subsidies. And as a consequence, family farms are getting squeezed out, and you're seeing more and more consolidation. This is something you hear about all across rural Iowa.
So what I would do is, I would cap those subsidies. I think we have to have a structures that provides protection of farmers from drought or a collapse in market prices. But we have to take that money that is saved, invest in conservation, invest in organic and alternative crops, invest in nutrition programs. Through that process, we can not only save the land, but we can also improve the economic engines in a lot of these rural communities.
And that is something that I'm absolutely committed to doing as president of the United States, but it's going to require overcoming the excess influence of agribusiness in Washington.
MS. WASHBURN: So would you have voted for or against the proposal Tuesday?
SEN. OBAMA: There were elements of the proposal, (I should say ?), that I think did not make the changes the way I would have approached it, so I probably would have voted against it. But there was a vote today that I voted for, that would have capped the subsidies so that it wouldn't be going to these folks who don't deserve it.
MS. WASHBURN: Senator Biden.
SEN. BIDEN: I would have voted for it. Look. You know, one of the interesting things, first time I ever came out to Iowa was with Senator Culver on his first campaign in '74. And one thing seems different now. You ride across this magnificent state and you see so much open land and so few farmers. It's kind of fascinating. You know, you'd think you'd see a farmhouse every, you know, 800 acres or so.
But the irony is, this is all about how do you preserve family farmers. There are only 550,000 of them left. And if you continue the system the way it is, it's breaking the system. It's going to just flat break the system. And the cost of — you know, the cost of an acreage has gone up with these excessive payments. The fact that we're not focusing on the things which the farm program started out to focus on, helping farmers in distress and being the balance — the ballast when the market was out of whack. It's gotten all out of whack.
And so it seems to me that we need a radical change. Tom is working hard on that. But I would have voted for it, and I voted for the farm — I voted today, the same way Barack and all the rest of us did, to maintain — to lower the caps —
MS. WASHBURN: Senator Clinton, how would you have voted?
SEN. CLINTON: Well, I think you're referring to the Lugar- Lautenberg. And I have been following Senator Harkin's lead on what needs to be done with the farm bill, so I would have voted against that and then voted, as I did today, for the limit on subsidies.
But this really goes beyond a particular amendment. There's so much that we could do that would really help family farmers and help rural development. I've got a dozen or so of my family farmers from New York traveling around Iowa today, talking to family farmers about what I've been trying to do to open up more markets, to give more support, to see rural economic development more broadly. So we do need a farm bill, and Tom Harkin's been working like a Trojan to get it done. And he's making progress, but he keeps getting beaten back all the time on conservation, on environmental stewardship, on subsidy limits. And when I'm president, we're going to finally make these changes because I believe that if we don't, we're going to see increasingly our family farmers as an endangered species. That's not good for any of us. So I'm going to do everything I can to get to a point where we truly have a farm policy for family farmers.
MS. WASHBURN: And so a logical question — Senator Clinton, I'd like you to ask — to answer this. Should NAFTA be scrapped or changed?
SEN. CLINTON: Well, it should be changed. You know, I think it's important for us to look at the entire context here. You know, you have winners and losers from trade right here in Iowa, people who are gaining because we're exporting and people who, John has rightly pointed out, have lost their jobs.
I want to be a president who focuses on smart, pro-American trade. I will review every trade agreement. I'm going to ask for revisions that I think will actually benefit our country, particularly our workers, our exporters. And I'm going to go to the international community and get the kind of enforceable agreements and standards on labor and environment that we have been seeking as Democrats, because we need to make it clear to the rest of the world that we are an open society, we believe in trade, but we don't want to be the trade patsies of the world. We want to have an equivocal (sic), balanced relationship, and that's what I will do as president. And NAFTA will we part of that review, to try to reform and improve it.
MS. WASHBURN: Senator Obama, what do you think about that?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, there's no doubt that NAFTA needs to be amended, and I've already said that I would contact the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Canada to make sure that the labor and environmental agreements are actually enforceable in the same way that patent protections and other things that are important to corporate America are enforceable.
But I did want to just go back briefly to the issue of trade and human rights that you had mentioned earlier. I think that folks made a terrific point, that we have to stand for human rights and that should be part of the trade equation. It is harder for us to do it when we have situations like Guantanamo, where we've suspended habeas corpus. To the extent that we are not being true to our values and our ideals, that sends a negative message to the world, and it gives us less leverage then when we want to deal with countries that are abusing human rights.
So I think it's part and parcel with a larger program of us restoring the traditions that made this country great and made us admired around the world.
MS. WASHBURN: I want to take on a new issue. Most of you have laid out plans to move toward energy independence. Those plans have costs attached and potential negative impacts, at least in the short term — for example, maybe more expensive cars, more expensive feed for livestock, impacts on coal-producing states.
So what would you do to turn it into a net benefit for the American economy? And how long might that take? Senator Biden?
SEN. BIDEN: It will take — to begin it won't take long at all. We should increase the mileage for automobiles required. We should make sure that every new car sold in America beginning in 2009 is a flex-fuel automobile. We should be investing a great deal more in cellulosics research, because corn ethanol is not going to take us the whole way.
But the bottom line is, you got to make it a fundamental priority. You got to say that we are going to make a major change. That requires a significant investment in alternative energy, renewable energy, moving from 20 — from 2 percent to 20 percent by the end of — by the end of this next decade, in 2020.
But the bottom line here is, the president has got to make — make this a moral crusade for the American people.
We're going to have to sacrifice to be able to get by for the next couple years in order to be able to get a handle on the energy crisis.
MS. WASHBURN: Governor Richardson?
GOV. RICHARDSON: Well, yeah, I like to think that I've made my state a clean energy state. I was Energy secretary. It's going to take an energy revolution, and I regret that this morning the U.S. Senate, despite the best efforts of all here, killed an energy bill that would have given more tax credits and incentives to renewable energy. And I think this is tragic. I think fuel efficiency standards in this country should be 50 miles per gallon, not 35. I think that's pathetic. I think we need to have 30 percent renewable sources in all our electricity by the year 2020. You asked about a year, I think 2020. Reduce our consumption of oil by 50 percent by having flex-fuel vehicles, 50 miles per gallon.
Also, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and I would do so by 90 percent with a cap-and-trade program. But most importantly, it's going to take the American people and it's going to take a president on a bully pulpit asking the American people to sacrifice a little bit, and I will. And that means being more sensitive to mass transit, to appliances, to air conditioning, to the way we live, and if we all do this without mandates, but we all do this, we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil, which is enormously unhealthy. Sixty- five percent of our oil is imported. We're paying close a hundred dollars per — to OPEC today. This has to be an energy revolution led by a president.
MS. WASHBURN: Senator Dodd, can you try that in 30 seconds?
SEN. DODD: (Laughs, laughter.) Well, look, first of all, you starting here. You've had a wonderful efforts here. Governor Vilsack started it; Governor Culver with a power fund adopted with the state legislature this year. It was a great step forward — one state making a difference.
We're borrowing a billion dollars every single day to buy foreign oil, a billion dollars every day. We're not going to wish ourselves out of this problem here. I'm the only candidate on this floor here who's advocated a corporate carbon tax.
Now, I'm fully aware of the implications of suggesting a tax, but it's not enough to state the goals. We've got to have the courage to stand up and tell you how you get there. And until you deal with the price differentials here, cheaper fuel is always going to win out unfortunately. So you need to be able to tax this carbon, which is killing us and killing this planet.
And I'm pleased that Al Gore and Bill Bradley have called our plan the most honest and bold of the energy plans here. This is the best gift our generation can give to the next. But if we're not honest about it and tough about it, it's going to be nothing more than a lot of speeches, and nothing much will change.
MS. WASHBURN: Senator Clinton.
SEN. CLINTON: Well, I think it's imperative that we address this issue. And I think your question was, well, will how we do it affect the average American? Yes, it will. That's part of what we're going to have to tell people.
I advocate a cap-and-trade system. What I want to do with the auction of pollution permits is to take a lot of that money and invest it in new technologies, new ways of getting to our objectives that I've outlined in my energy plan. I want to use some of it though to cushion the costs that will come onto the American consumer.
But it's not just enough to have an energy plan, not just enough to attack old global warming. We've got to enlist the American people, the way we did in a previous generation for the Apollo program. As a little girl, I remember being thrilled about that and feeling that there was something I could do. My 5th grade teacher said it was to study math and science, but it gave me an idea of actually contributing to my country.
This has to call for a new form of American patriotism.
So when people, particularly on the other side of the aisle, talk about how we will wreck the economy and impose all of these costs, that is what is happening right now. We cannot sustain the current energy profile in this country. That's why we have to act. And we will act in a way that brings the country together and lifts us up and gives us a feeling that we are once again reaching for the stars, only we're going to do it right here on Earth.
MS. WASHBURN: Senator Obama?
SEN. OBAMA: This is a moral imperative. I've got a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old daughter, and I want to make sure that the planet is as beautiful for them as it was for me. Now, what that means is there are going to be some increases initially in electricity prices, for example, if we have a cap-and-trade system. Over time, technology will adapt because investors and people who are looking to make money will see that they can make money through green technologies.
We're already seeing this. In Keokuk, they are just opening a plant right now that is going to provide 400 well-paying jobs to build wind turbines. And that's the promise of the future. But in order for this to happen, we've got to be courageous enough to not just talk about it in front of the Sierra Club or organizations that are already sympathetic to us. When I announced my proposal to increase fuel efficiency standards on cars, I went to Detroit in front of the automakers and said they had to change their ways. And I have to say, the room was really quiet. And nobody clapped. (Laughter.)
But that's okay, because part of what the next president has to do is not just tell the American people what they want to hear, has to tell them what they need to hear.
MS. WASHBURN: Senator Edwards, you're the only one not in on this so far. Your turn.
MR. EDWARDS: Well, I want to get in. I think first of all, we need to recognize what the obstacles are to the change that everyone believes is necessary. And the obstacles are oil companies, power companies, all those entrenched interests that stand between America and the change that it needs.
And we do need a president who will actually ask Americans to be patriotic about something other than war, who will say to America for us to deal with issues and deal with them in a serious way, whether it's cap and trade, whether it's carbon — cap and trade's what I propose — but either way, it's a serious effort to move America off its dependence on carbon-based fuels and deal with what I think is a moral crisis, which is the future of the planet for our children and our grandchildren.
We have a responsibility to future generations, an enormous responsibility. The 20 generations came before us — our parents, our grandparents — and did what — everything they could do to leave America better than they found it and to make certain that their children had a better life than they've had. That's what our responsibility is. Our moral responsibility is to rise up as a nation with the right kind of president and the right kind of leadership and go after these huge moral responsibilities that we're faced with.