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McCain Shows Leadership on Farm Bill. Obama Doesn't.

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Here’s what I find so interesting about the poorly considered and irresponsible farm bill. Barack Obama supported it. John McCain opposed it. Apparently, for Obama, change does not include changing the way our government recklessly doles out money with more regard to the desires of lobbyists than to the needs of the nation. McCain, on the other hand, actually understands that change is about doing the hard work of reform, not just using the force of character to shift political paradigms.

Today, in a Chicago Tribune editorial, McCain wrote he would, if president, veto such a farm bill and explained:

Congress should be ashamed of this mockery of its promise to rein in waste and earmarks. Buried within its hundreds of pages is $93 million in tax breaks for race horses, a $4 billion trust fund for disaster payments on top of subsidized crop insurance that is supposed to take care of such “disasters,” and the list goes on. If that wasn’t enough, this bill would send $250 million of taxpayers’ money to Plum Creek Timber Co. in Montana. Plum Creek, according to its Web site, “is the largest and most geographically diverse private land owner in the nation” and paid a healthy dividend to shareholders last quarter.

It is time to wean ourselves from the huge crop subsidies being paid by taxpayers and the flawed policies that distort the markets, artificially raise prices for consumers and pit producers against consumers.

That seems to me a principled stand. Here’s how Obama justified his support of the bill.

The bill places greater resources into renewable energy and conservation. And, during this time of rising food prices, the farm bill provides an additional $10 billion for critical nutrition programs. I am also pleased that the bill includes my proposal to help thousands of African-American farmers get their discrimination claims reviewed under the Pigford settlement.

“This bill is far from perfect. I believe in tighter payment limits and a ban on packer ownership of livestock. As president, I will continue to fight for the interests of America’s family farmers and ranchers and ensure that assistance is geared towards those producers who truly need them, instead of large agribusinesses. But with so much at stake, we cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good.

That’s almost Clintonian in its dodges and weaves. Sounds justified on its surface but I think David Brooks is right on the money when he says the farm bill garnered so many votes primarily because diverse special interests trumped broad national interests. Obama, for his part, would rather see his personal special interests be rewarded than to take a principled stand against the billions of unnecessary spending.

Obama gives a lot of lip service to change but his support of the farm bill shows he’s OK with politics as usual so long as his interests get their money. He could have shown leadership on this bill. Instead he just went with the flow and achieved nothing greater than politics as usual.