It would be easy to miss. Midway through an otherwise worthy report on debates over manufacturing within the White House, a brief but troubling blemish: unexamined, un-rebutted spin. “Romney and Republicans,” wrote the Washington Post, “say there is already an example of Obama’s manufacturing program at work—the ‘green jobs’ program that benefited political donors and lobbyists, such as the backers of the failed solar energy company Solyndra.” A Martian reading the article would come away imagining that Solyndra was a Grade A scandal, and “green jobs” itself was a discredited hoax. Unfortunately, by now the average US news consumer may have that impression too. And Republicans are counting on it.
Reeling from the controversy over his “retroactive” Bain resignation, this week Mitt Romney is mounting a counter-attack. Rather than his own vulture capitalist credentials, Romney wants to talk about the supposed “crony capitalism” of the president, with Solyndra as Exhibit A. Yesterday, the campaign debuted a new ad warning that, “Obama is giving taxpayer dollars to big donors and then watching them lose it.” GOP Senator Ron Johnson went further, comparing green energy investment to Soviet communism, “the lessons of the Soviet Union.” In December, the conservative writer Conn Carroll posited that this election will be about “Bain vs Solyndra.” Wishful thinking? Too soon to tell.
In the right-wing telling—shamefully reinforced by much of the mainstream reporting—Solyndra is the perfect scandal: tree-hugging environmentalists, liberal millionaire hypocrites and big government central planning. If it didn’t exist, they’d have to invent it. In fact, they basically did.
Some facts are in order. As the indispensable David Roberts noted last fall at Grist, “One sign of Republicans’ success in hyping the Solyndra scandal is that they’ve got everybody calling it a scandal. Despite the turgid atmospherics, though, there still hasn’t been any official wrongdoing established or even charged.” Continuing a process begun under President Bush, the Obama Energy Department guaranteed a $535 million loan to Solyndra; the solar start-up failed. That loan was 3 percent of the loan guarantee program. Congress budgeted more than enough money for some of the start-ups to fail, as some start-ups do. Republican outrage rides on the insistence that Solyndra got the loan as political payback. But after a year of hearings, twenty-six witnesses and 187,000 documents from the White House, all Republicans have to show for it are some context-less quotes and a lot of baseless assertions.
By March, Congressman and Solyndra Grand Inquisitor Darrell Issa, was reduced to telling <, “Was there criminal activity? Perhaps not. Is there policial influence and connections? Perhaps not. Did they bend the rules for an agenda not covered within the statute? Absolutely.”
As a Bloomberg Government analysis found, “The focus on Solyndra is not proportional to its impact.” Meanwhile, truly disturbing stories—from the rampant corruption at the Bush Minerals Management Service to Keystone XL’s coziness with the Obama State Department—drew comparatively paltry attention. Chalk up another win for the Republican outrage machine.
Despite the evidence, Romney wants to convince Americans that a bad bet on Solyndra is more significant than decades of outsourcing and downsizing. There’s a real risk that reporters—hungry for scandal and hypnotized by false equivalence—will let him get away with it. At stake is more than an electoral football. Like Reagan’s fabled Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” or much-hyped claims of voter fraud or food stamp abuse, this right-wing myth-making has dire policy consequences. As Solyndra becomes shorthand for scandal, the well gets poisoned for future progress.
We can’t afford for that to happen. As former Green Jobs Czar Van Jones—no stranger to right-wing faux outrage machine—reminds us, green jobs are at the hearts of some of our deepest challenges: Building a better, broader politics. Forging a true industrial policy and an economy that works for the 99 percent. Averting environmental calamity.
The attacks on Solyndra are more than just attacks on Obama—they’re attacks on the notion of government as a place where we can come together to take on big challenges, drive economic innovation and advance our common interests while securing a sustainable future. The Solyndra scolds don’t just want to take down Obama—they want to hold back our politics. Let’s not let them.