Last summer, Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis had a problem in Iowa, and his name was Dixon Terry.
Terry, an Iowa dairy farmer and founder of the influential Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, did not like what Dukakis was saying about agriculture.
First, the Massachusetts governor had displayed his ignorance of Midwestern farming by suggesting that Iowa's beleaguered corn and soybean producers diversify into low-volume specialty crops, pointing to the Massachusetts truck farmers who had done well with Belgian endive.
But while that proposal had been met with derision throughout Iowa, Terry believed that Dukakis' later criticism of the pending Harkin-Gephardt Farm Act was even worse. Harkin-Gephardt, a radical solution to the farm crisis that calls for tight, mandatory limits on crop production and a doubling or more of current corn and soybean prices, is sacrosanct among activist Democratic farmers in Iowa.
So Terry went to work on Dukakis. In his group's monthly political newsletter, sent to 5,000 liberal farmers and rural political activists throughout the state--all people likely to attend Iowa's Democratic caucuses next February--Terry gave Dukakis a very negative review.
Within two weeks, Terry was granted an hourlong private meeting with Dukakis, and almost immediately Dukakis became an ardent supporter of tough new federal limits on crop production.
"Dukakis has turned around 180 degrees," notes a pleased Dave Ostendorf, director of Prariefire, a rural activist group affiliated with Terry's coalition.
Dukakis' change of heart is a good example of just how much influence Terry and a handful of other liberal farm activists now wield in the Democratic presidential campaign in Iowa, and the extent to which they have set the agenda on agriculture in the race.
Despite polls showing that most Iowans would not support greater federal subsidies for farmers--and despite sharp policy differences among farmers themselves--four of the six major Democratic candidates have now embraced radical farm programs styled after the Harkin-Gephardt approach, which would effectively create a Midwestern grain cartel that could inflate food prices.
They have done so because the Iowa Democratic caucuses are dominated by liberal activists, and few Democratic caucus-goers are more activist or more liberal than a farmer who believes he has been wronged by Washington.
Indeed, the cadre of troubled farmers and other rural voters likely to attend the Democratic caucuses fervently support government intervention in agriculture, and often denounce the relatively moderate market-oriented positions held by the many affluent farmers in the state who tend to vote in the Republican caucuses.
"There are real divisions in the rural electorate on what needs to be done," Terry says. "So in the caucuses, you really have two processes going on. The Democrats are appealing to the minority of liberal farmers, and the Republicans are appealing to the minority of hard-core conservative farmers.
"Both sides are minorities, and in the middle you have a big bulk of farmers who are confused and don't know what should be done. But those people generally don't go out on caucus night."
As a result, activists with rural political networks such as Terry end up controlling the Democratic debate on one of the key issues in the Iowa presidential campaign, much to the chagrin of many of the candidates.
"There is a litmus test among the activists on agriculture in Iowa, and the litmus test is Harkin-Gephardt," complains one staff member with a leading Democratic campaign.
"Right now, the general population in Iowa doesn't support Harkin-Gephardt, but the militant farm groups do, and they are the ones who participate in the caucuses," he adds.
That has given Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, co-sponsor of the legislation with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a real advantage in his presidential candidacy. The American Agriculture Movement, the only farm group so far to publicly endorse a candidate, has given its backing to Gephardt because of his bill.
New Voting Process
His legislation would allow farmers to decide among themselves, through a new voting process, how much corn, soybeans and other grains could be produced in the United States.
The federal government would enforce the limits, and also double grain prices. To ensure that American crops could remain competitive in foreign markets, the bill calls for international agreements with other grain exporting nations to limit worldwide production; forming, in effect, an OPEC for farmers.
Gephardt and his supporters argue that the legislation would drastically reduce the need for direct federal subsidies to farmers, which now total about $25 billion annually. But that would come at the cost of higher consumer prices and the introduction of an unprecedented level of central planning in a key sector of the American economy.
Doubt It Would Work
Many economists and farm experts doubt that the program could work, primarily because they do not believe foreign grain producers would ever agree to limit their exports just to help out American farmers.
"The farming community in Iowa is split badly over Harkin-Gephardt, because while it would reduce federal costs, it would also reduce the pressure on American farmers to remain competitive internationally," says Neil Harl, an agriculture expert at Iowa State University. "And the question is whether U.S. consumers would support higher food prices, while there are lower prices outside the United States."
But the four Democrats ranked at the top of the polls in Iowa have endorsed most of Harkin-Gephardt's central tenets.
"Dukakis doesn't talk much about Harkin-Gephardt," notes Ellen Kurz, Midwest rural coordinator for Dukakis. But she adds that his agriculture platform now "includes a combination of supply management and reasonable price controls."
Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, meanwhile, who is now leading in most major polls in Iowa, has dropped his earlier objections and now endorses "supply management," an Iowa code-phrase for federal production limits.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson has even gone further than Harkin-Gephardt by calling for a low-interest loan program to give bankrupt farmers a chance to buy back their land from the federal farm credit system.
Political observers here now say that Jackson has built up a strong following among radical farmers in the state, splitting off some support that might otherwise have gone to Gephardt. "I think Jackson and Gephardt are probably getting the bulk of the Democratic, caucus-going farmers," says John Norris, Jackson's Iowa campaign coordinator.
Only Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona governor who has not done well in the polls, and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., who has virtually pulled out of the Iowa contest, continue to criticize Harkin-Gephardt.
"Gore would support some moderate production controls, but he just doesn't feel the arbitrary supply management in Harkin-Gephardt is the way to go," said Gore spokesman Paul Risley.
For the Republicans, meanwhile, the farm issue seems somewhat less important than it does in the Democratic campaign; Republicans are not eager to talk about a farm crisis that has taken place during a Republican Administration. And, at the same time, virtually all of the politically active farm organizations are concentrated on the Democratic side.
"It may not be as much of a litmus test issue for the Republicans," says John Buckley, spokesman for New York Rep. Jack Kemp.
"The Democrats do seem to play up the farm issue a lot more than the Republicans," adds Harl of Iowa State. What little Republican debate there is on agriculture is now dominated by Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. Dole was the congressional architect of the current farm subsidy program, which is pumping billions of dollars into Iowa, saving thousands of farmers from bankruptcy.
In fact, Dole's role in pushing those subsidies through Congress, coupled with his long track record on farm issues in Kansas, have been key factors in his move to the front of the pack in Iowa. A recent Des Moines Register poll ranked him first (36%), with Vice President George Bush second at 30%.
Bush, on the other hand, has been hurt by his connection to the Reagan Administration's farm policies, which remain extremely unpopular even among Republican farmers in the state.
The only other Republican to make a big issue out of agriculture in Iowa has been former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV.
Calls for Free Market
Desperate for attention, he has become the only candidate to oppose all federal support for agriculture and to call for a free market in farming. He even held a press conference in front of the offices of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, issuing a demand, which the group refused, that the coalition set up a debate on agricultural issues between Du Pont and Gephardt.
Such dissent does not bother the farm activists. They have already won over the candidates, at least on the Democratic side, that they want in Iowa.
"Through the work of Dixon Terry and others, Iowa Farm Unity has helped bring about a significant shift among the leading Democratic candidates toward supply management," notes Ostendorf of Prariefire. "And for us, supply management is the real litmus test."