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.