There are, of course, many reasons to attend the Iowa State Fair.

As they say on the billboards: “Nothing Compares.”

The Canned Food Sculpture is striking.

Reserved seats are sold out for Saturday’s Journey, Pat Benatar and Loverboy show on the grandstand, but there is still standing-room-only space to be had for $40 a pop.

The deep-fried butter on a stick is, by most accounts, scrumptious.

And, if you are campaigning for, say, vice president of the United States, you could talk farm policy at the same place where Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Bob Dole, Joe Biden and everyone who has ever entertained the notion of winning an election in this proud agricultural state has done.

Or, if you’re Paul Ryan, you could, um, well, what was Paul Ryan doing at the Iowa State Fair?

No one was all that surprised when the exercise-obsessed House Budget Committee chairman and newly minted Republican vice presidential candidate avoided the butter on a stick.

Asked about this summer’s epic drought, which has become a serious issue for farmers in more than 1,500 countries across thirty states—including Iowa—Ryan said: “We’ll get into all those policy things later. Right now I just want to enjoy the fair.”


Isn’t that like walking through the Jeep plant in Toledo and saying: “No policy today, boys, I want to enjoy the smells of the paint room.”



Policy-wonk power?

No. Just classic Washington-insider avoidance of an important issue.

And Iowans noticed.

Fair-goer Bill Thomas, who hails from Indianola, explains, “There’s a lot of farmers here.”

Why wouldn’t Ryan, whose district in southern Wisconsin includes many farms (including my brother-in-law’s spread), be up for some talk about droughts, crop insurance and country-of-origin labeling?

Because Ryan is not really the policy wonk his press clips suggest. The congressman, who has spent his entire adult life in DC, is one of those classic inside-the-Beltway careerists who swoops into Midwestern states like Iowa with talking points rather than any sense of where he is going or who he is talking with.

Ryan gave a brief stump speech at the fair that focused on jobs issues in a state where the unemployment rate is three points below the national number. But he wouldn’t answer questions about the drought and the efforts of House Republicans to stall the federal Farm Bill.

So why won’t Ryan talk farm issues in farm states?

Because doing so would turn farm states against the Romney-Ryan ticket—and potentially against Republican candidates for the House and Senate.

Presidential battleground states such as Iowa, Colorado, Ohio and Wisconsin have vast rural regions and long histories of voting with an eye toward farm and food, small-town and countryside issues. One of the keys to Barack Obama’s big win in the 2008 presidential race was the significant increase in support—up 11 percent—that the Democratic ticket won from rural regions. In eight of the ten states that shifted from backing Republican George Bush in 2004 to Democrat Obama in 2008, rural voters moved to the Democrats at even higher rates.

In 2010, rural regions swung hard to the right, providing big gains for the Republicans. Two-thirds of all US House seat gains by the GOP came the country’s 125 most rural districts.

So it is that rural matters, a lot, in 2012. Control of the Senate will be determined by contests in states such as Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin. To retake the House, Democrats must win back a substantial number of the thirty-nine rural districts that shifted from Democrat to Republican in 2010. And the road to the White House runs through rural America, as Obama noted when he decided to spent three days this week campaigning in Iowa. That’s also why Ryan was there.

But Ryan could well prove to be the best thing that has happened to Democrats seeking to win rural votes. Rural voters are older, and more reliant on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the Veterans Administration and other federal agencies that assure that affordable healthcare is available in small towns.

The Ryan budget threatens those programs and agencies—so much so that one Republican US Senate candidate, Denny Rehberg of Montana, has for months been highlighting the fact that he voted against the House Budget Committee chairman’s plan.

The Ryan budget, which Mitt Romney seems to have adopted as his own (depending on which day he’s asked) also poses a direct threat to farm supports and rural development.

“His budget would absolutely shred the safety net for farmers,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said of Ryan. “Make no mistake about it.”

While the Catholic bishops and others have attacked the Ryan budget’s assault on the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a morally unacceptable choice because of the harm it would do hungry Americans, undermining food-assistance programs also hurts farmers who produce food. National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson accused Ryan of “attempting to balance the budget on the backs of rural America.”

“Agriculture has been ready and willing to do its part in reducing the federal deficit, but Representative Ryan’s budget proposes total cuts to farm bill spending of more than $155 billion,” says Johnson, who accuses Ryan of proposing cuts to vital farm support and rural “safety net”  programs that “are irresponsible in a time of economic recovery.”

Though Ryan’s district includes stretches of rural Wisconsin, he has eschewed opportunities to serve on the House Committee on Agriculture, choosing instead the insider route of chairing the powerful Budget Committee. His budget committee role, combined with his personal ambition, made him a central player in the House Republican leadership cabal that has stalled action on a comprehensive federal farm bill, which Congress is supposed to pass by September 30. It is one of Ryan’s closest allies, House majority leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, who is playing politics with the five-year farm bill—which has been approved by the Senate and by the House Agriculture Committee. Cantor’s delaying tactics, Vilsack complains makes “a process which ought to be simple far more complex.” 
Actually, as the NFU’s Johnson notes, Ryan’s the one making things complex. Indeed, says Johnson, the Budget Committee chair’s plan—if implemented—“would severely constrain the ability of the next farm bill to provide policy that protects against yield losses and when markets collapse. Ryan’s proposed budget dramatically reduces the flexibility of Congress when it comes to dealing with farm and rural issues.

Faced with drought and economic instability, rural voters are looking for boldness, courage and leadership.

They’re not getting it from Paul Ryan, who says he doesn’t have time—or the inclination—to talk agriculture because getting serious about farm policy might interrupt his enjoyment of the Iowa State Fair. That’s the sort of things rural voters will remember in November.