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THE NATION: The Powerful Paradox

5 minute read

The enormous momentum which the welfare state gives to the political party in power was being demonstrated last week through U.S. farm areas. In November, the farm vote probably will be crucial; theoretically both candidates have an equal chance to get it. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture—merely applying the law and using the taxpayers’ money—was able to remind farmers that the Democratic Party wouldn’t let even nature “take it away.” The surprising paradox is that the “ins” are able simultaneously to garner political credits from a disastrous drought in some parts of the U.S., and bumper harvests in others.

Prompt Delivery. The drought parched the South from the brown grazing lands of Texas eastward through Dixie’s corn, tobacco and (less seriously) cotton. It seared the Southeast’s new livestock pasturage. It left scattered scars in the Midwest, and on wide areas of New England.

The Department of Agriculture moved in smoothly and efficiently. On order of Agriculture Secretary Charles Brannan, it designated as disaster areas parts of Missouri and Arkansas and the entire states of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maine and Massachusetts. (Maine’s Republican commissioner of agriculture, Fred Nutter, snapped that Washington had made Maine a disaster area over his objection. “They wanted us to ask for it,” said he, “and we didn’t want it.”) The disaster rating allowed farmers to apply for 3% Government loans to finance their next crops, and assured them of an extension of the loan if the next crop fails.

The Guardians. In the same week, there was promise in the wheat belt of a harvest some 250 million bushels bigger than last year’s.* Here, too, lay political opportunity. If the crops are up to promise, both corn and wheat may slump between now and election time. In Washington, Charlie Brannan’s planners are already drafting their strategy for reminding the farmers that the Administration is the true guardian of the “fixed,” (i.e., ever-rising) price.

Agriculture-conscious Republicans like Kansas’ Representative Clifford Hope well know that the Democrats will make the most of their influence over the farmers. The Republicans recall the campaign of 1948, when the Department of Agriculture issued solemn warnings about a shortage of storage space for corn and wheat. Harry Truman and the other Democratic orators took off from there, trumpeting that the Republicans had voted down a bill to provide Government warehouse space. “If the corn farmers had stopped to think, they’d have known that they never did put their corn in Government warehouses,” said Hope. “They usually put it in a crib at home and got a loan on it … It was one of the biggest political hoaxes in history.” There was, in fact, some scratching for storage space, but the hue & cry was exaggerated, and the Democrats harvested many a farmer’s vote with the fear technique.

This year, on the basis of platform promises, the G.O.P. has made itself more vulnerable than it needs to be. The Democratic platform flatly declares for a “mandatory price support program at not less than 90% of parity.” The Republicans specify no percentage guarantees, call ambiguously for a program aimed “at full parity prices for all farm products in the market place.” And the market place, with its free play of prices, is just where many farmers do not want to go.

Moreover, the Democrats have hauled a plank right out of the old Brannan Plan, with promises of supports to farm perishables like vegetables and livestock, sharply recalling Charlie Brannan’s pet scheme of keeping both city consumers and farmers happy. Under the Brannan Plan, perishables are allowed to seek their natural market price across the store counters (thus lowering prices to the buyers), and the Government pays the farmer as a cash subsidy the difference between the support price and the market. The Republicans promise nothing but support for “locally controlled marketing agreements.” The Republican platform actually is less friendly to the farmer than the long-term Republican record in Congress on farm legislation.

If the Democrats can use the present drought and a surplus to repeat their inroads in the farm vote, the 1952 G.O.P. chances will drop sharply. There is one chance of retrieving the ground lost by the Republican platform. “In the final analysis,” says Cliff Hope, “the candidate’s interpretation of the platform is what the people will take, anyway.” The job now falls to Ike Eisenhower to make clear what he thinks is good in the whole accumulation of farm legislation, to make clear what he thinks would be better. Ike was never committed to a more important—and more uphill—campaign.

* The Department of Agriculture estimates that by 1955 U.S. farm production can be increased by one-fifth over 1950, can provide enough “food and fiber” to meet any foreseeable demand, including wartime demand.

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