CASUAL OBSERVERS of yesterday's Senate debate on mandating use of a corn-based product as fuel might think it had something to do with the environment. Or weaning the nation from foreign oil. Or helping farmers.
But no. In fact, the whole clean, green, energy-lean public case for ethanol is pretty much of a hoax. The raw political forces at play here are directly related to the ballot box success of individual senators, and even their party labels don't mean squat.
The breakdown goes like this: Senators from the Midwest, where farmers have been convinced to bet the homestead on growing corn for ethanol, are for the mandate. It would double use of the heavily subsidized product over the next 10 years.
So powerful is the symbolism of this pot of gold that Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who is facing a tough re-election challenge in South Dakota, greeted voters recently at a Sioux Falls service station and pumped ethanol-blended gasoline into their tanks to highlight his longtime support.
Most any senator with serious presidential ambitions is also for the mandate, thanks to the heavy influence of the Iowa caucuses in the nominating process. That includes the four Democrats who have already announced White House bids for 2004, and who knows how many others privately lusting for the job. Republican John McCain, a longtime foe of ethanol subsidies, chose not to compete in Iowa when he ran for president in 2002, anticipating the wrath of Boss Corn.
Senators from the East and West coasts are mostly against mandating ethanol use. They fear the cost of transporting the Midwest product to their states will make gasoline even more expensive. Democrat Dianne Feinstein says it already costs $50 to fuel-up her Jeep Cherokee in San Francisco.
Senator Feinstein forged an alliance that embraced conservative Republicans such as Don Nickles of Oklahoma and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire as well as liberal Democrats, including Charles E. Schumer of New York and Ron Wyden of Oregon. They tried in vain to let states escape the ethanol mandate if the states could meet clean-air standards with other fuels.
"Why would anyone oppose this as a matter of public policy, to force a transfer of wealth to another area of the country when it isn't necessary?" Ms. Feinstein asked.
One reason is Archer Daniels Midland and its fellow agribusiness conglomerates, which get billions in ethanol subsidies and share generously with campaign coffers.
Never mind that the corn is grown on land for which it is ill-suited, requires fertilizers and pesticides that pollute the groundwater, and yields a fuel that can take more energy to make than it provides.
Boss Corn rules.