The black-and-white cows lumbering behind Mitt Romney during his sit-down with Bob Schieffer last Sunday on Face the Nation actually feed off the same big government the presidential candidate spent much of the interview deriding. When Romney told Schieffer that "the only solution to taming an out-of-control spending government is to cut spending," the bovines in the background could be forgiven for worrying.
Jeff and Karen Zuck, who own the 160-acre, 117-head dairy farm that was Romney's chosen backdrop for the rare non-Fox interview, have collected $195,631 in federal subsidies since 1995. The $44,549 in grants they got in 2009, Barack Obama's first year in office, was almost twice their previous high in 2002, and was a consequence of the heightened subsidies the Obama administration rushed to deliver as milk prices plummeted in the recession. Only 20 farms in subsidy-rich Lebanon County, Penn., received more federal aid than the Zucks in 2009, and only 30 exceeded the Zuck subsidy over the prior decade and a half. But the farm didn't even appear on the top 50 list in George W. Bush's final year in office, when they received a measly $1,177 in subsidies, less than three percent of what Obama gave them the next year.
Regardless, Karen Zuck told The Daily Beast that she and her husband back Romney. "I haven't liked Obama since before he was president," said Zuck, who had a hard time pinpointing exactly what she likes about Romney, other than her belief that he's "going to do more" about "keeping regulations down." Acknowledging that 2009 and 2010 were their "darkest years," Zuck admitted that "maybe we did get something from it," a reference to the Dairy Economic Loss Assistance Program (DELAP) that Obama jump-started in 2009 ($10,243 for the Zucks), and the Milk Income Loss Contract Payment Program that Obama infused with new funding ($34,944 for the Zucks). "We get enough," said Zuck. "But we'd rather not," she added, insisting that she'd prefer to let milk prices rise on their own.
Despite their cows' starring role on the CBS set, the Zucks were never invited to join the Saturday afternoon taping. In fact, Romney never actually set foot on the farm, even though it was billed as a farm visit. Instead he sat in the front yard of Dave and Ceal Bamberger, who own a car-repair and heating-oil delivery company, and whose house is across the way from the Zuck farm. The Bambergers' son-in-law, Mark Thomas, is the Cornwall Borough Mayor, and Romney's staff reached out to him for tips on a good secluded location. He picked his in-laws' house.
"It seemed like a closed set," Karen Zuck said. "We watched the bus back in and the Secret Service was there on the Bamberger yard." Since they were at church the next morning when the interview aired, the Zucks never saw their cows' star turn.
The awkward staging was reminiscent of Romney's April appearance at an empty Ohio factory that, it turned out, had closed seven months before Obama took office. Or his February rally at Detroit's 65,000-seat Ford Field, before an audience of about 1000 people.
Lebanon may seem like a funny place for Romney to take his swipe at big government: out of Pennsylvania's 64 counties, it's the fifth largest recipient of federal farm subsidies, and the Zuck farm is right across the border from the No.-1 recipient, Lancaster County (Romney's already visited there too). Romney's six-state tour — carrying the message he announced at the outset that "Washington's big government agenda should not smother small-town dreams" — is actually a reminder of how much small towns, too, depend on big government aid.
Maybe Romney was happy he missed meeting the Zucks and their cows. He recently endorsed the Paul Ryan budget, which cuts $30 billion in farm subsidies over the years.
Research assistance was provided by Danielle Bernstein, Loretta Chin, Alina Mogilyanskaya, and Joseph O'Sullivan.