The last presidential election seemed to be the perfect opportunity for the cattle industry. On almost every important issue, including the environment, taxes, private-property rights, trade, etc., the two candidates – John Kerry and George W. Bush – were starkly different. It was arguably the clearest cut choice we’d ever faced as an industry.
Even more importantly, President Bush was the favorite to win reelection. It was argued that by taking the unprecedented approach of throwing the support of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association behind him, the industry could expect to wield unprecedented influence in getting its legislative priorities enacted during his second term.
It was widely debated whether an endorsement was worth the risk, and those raising concerns about the gambit certainly proved to be correct. The second Bush term has been, in virtually everyone’s view, a total disaster from a cattle-industry standpoint. It’s resulted in the most significantly negative policy decisions ever for the cattle industry.
We lost billions of unrecoverable dollars to an inability to restore beef trade with Japan and Korea, while ethanol subsidies proved the most devastating policy ever enacted against livestock production. We saw the majority of industry issues get hung up in a game of political partisanship that certainly wasn’t helped by our open support of the Bush administration. And despite the death of the industry’s internal political struggle, we saw the industry’s issues continue to be used as political footballs.
Certainly nearly every industry has made similar political miscalculations; some would argue the Bush administration’s abandonment of the beef industry would have occurred with or without our support, and with even worse results. I’m not sure what “worse” would have been, however.
The fallout from the political disaster of the last four years is, in many regards, just beginning to be understood. The U.S. cattle industry is in a tough position in today’s political environment; we’re out-manned, out-gunned, and find ourselves in direct opposition to some of our traditional allies, corn growers, for example.
Plus, those who openly support our demise have gained strength and political clout, and appear to be building on those gains in the upcoming election. None of the presidential candidates appear to favor the industry on the majority of major issues, and the interests of rural America continue to move toward the back burner.
The industry must continue to reevaluate its strategies relative to achieving political aims, and we must do a much better job of mobilizing producers and grassroots efforts. Nor can we afford to speak with a divided voice, allowing ourselves to be used as a political football, as we have the last 10 years.
One could argue that the industry’s internal struggle was a necessary evil, but any internal debates must occur in the industry’s meeting rooms, not in the halls of Congress.
Someone asked me the other day to estimate the cost to the industry of lost opportunities in the last decade. I’m not sure we want to ever know the actual dollar number, but just two of the issues – the losses associated with ethanol and the delays in regaining our foreign markets – could have put a brand new pickup truck in everybody’s yard.