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Hillary's ethanol flip-flop reveals a Democratic sclerosis on cronyism

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Hillary Clinton supports the mandate, which benefits the early primary state of Iowa. (Getty Images file)

Hillary Clinton once opposed the ethanol mandate, which harms drivers, consumers, ranchers, the environment and the economy.

Now, as she runs for president, Clinton supports the mandate, which benefits the state of Iowa — and in exchange, presumably, she's earned the endorsement of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, an ethanol-subsidy aficionado.

During the 2002 debate over an energy bill that included an ethanol mandate, Clinton took to the Senate floor to say that while she believed ethanol had potential, she couldn't support "an astonishing new anti-consumer government mandate — that every US refiner must use an ever-increasing volume of ethanol."

Earlier this year, Clinton wrote in a local Iowa paper that Iowans "deserve to be able to get ahead and stay ahead. To make that possible," she supports the ethanol mandate.

Hillary's flip-flop, and the utter lack of principle or shame behind it, shocks nobody who has paid attention to Mrs. Clinton's political career.

But Clinton is one of a long line of erstwhile ethanol opponents who converted on the road to Des Moines.

Bill Bradley, the supposed principled progressive, became an ethanol shill during his 2000 presidential bid.

Al Gore, who beat Bradley in both ethanol enthusiasm and the Iowa caucuses, has since admitted that the policy is horrible and he was only pandering.

Ethanol mandates drive up gasoline prices for drivers, food prices for shoppers and feed prices for ranchers. They deplete water supplies, waste cropland and corrupt our politics. Hillary Clinton knows this. But she also knows how important the Iowa caucuses are.

Some commentators frame this tawdry story as one state's avaricious self-interest at the expense of the public interest. This is true. Iowans should be ashamed that they use their privileged position in American politics to enrich themselves. It is cronyism, distilled.

Free and enlightened societies are built on the opposite idea: That those who are given a privilege are thereby bound to pursue the broader good. Republics and economies are ruined when the insiders use their inside post to enrich themselves and their friends.

Iowans are, in a sense, trustees of the Republican and Democratic primary voters in 49 other states. Through the ethanol boondoggle, they break that trust.

But Iowans and the corn lobbyists don't get all the blame. The politicians who sell out to them bear the ultimate culpability. And selling out is not inevitable.

Ted Cruz showed how it is done this past spring. He went to the Iowa Ag Summit, run by aggressive ethanol and wind-subsidy interests, and said no to the mandate. "I don't think Washington should be picking winners and losers," he said. "I have every bit of faith that businesses can continue to compete, can continue to do well without having to go on bended knee to Washington asking for subsidies, asking for special favors. I think that's how we got in this problem to begin with."

In this way, Cruz reflects a growing movement in the GOP and on the American Right: A true anti-corporate welfare constituency. There has always been a platoon of conservative GOP lawmakers who stood for free enterprise even when that meant opposing K Street. But the need for lobbyist money, big business money and — not unrelated — the approval of party leadership prompted many Republicans to hold their nose and back corporate welfare. (Many others frankly enjoyed the smell, and happily cast their "pro-business" votes for bigger government.)

In recent years, though, the anti-corporatism cause has grown fangs, in the form of lobbying organizations (such as Heritage Action), grassroots agitators (like Americans for Prosperity) and a network of donors (like the Club for Growth and the Koch brothers' donor network).

You can see this anti-corporate-welfare lobby's fingerprints in the fight over the Export-Import Bank, where a majority of Republican senators now oppose the agency lovingly (and accurately) known as "Boeing's Bank." The Tea Party gained much of its 2010 fuel from the 2008 bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit.

The forces of cronyism and corporatism are still strong within the GOP, but at least they have a rival.

In the Democratic Party there is no comparable army arrayed against corporate welfare. Sure, Hillary Clinton will issue empty tirades against "corporate lobbyists," but nobody believes her — especially not her corporate lobbyist donors. Bernie Sanders holds a sincere antipathy towards many subsidy sucklers, especially those on Wall Street.

Sanders is happy voting against the Wall Street bailout and to break up the banks, and he's good on the Export-Import Bank. But the deciding factor in all these decisions seems to be whether or not he likes the companies or industries getting the favors.

Boeing, Barclays: Bad. Wind turbine makers, or Iowa agribusiness: Fine. There is no general opposition inside the Democratic Party to corporations using the taxpayer as a piggy bank.

Sanders voted in 2007 to expand the ethanol mandate (Clinton, conveniently, missed that vote), and he's voted against repealing ethanol subsidies.

The result could be interesting: A Republican running for president against corporate welfare, and a Democrat forced to defend it.

Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.