DES MOINES — 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