The American Debate: Shedding light on solar scandal

President Obama got a tour of Solyndra last year from executivevice president Ben Bierman (left) and founder Chris Gronet.
President Obama got a tour of Solyndra last year from executivevice president Ben Bierman (left) and founder Chris Gronet. (ALEX BRANDON / Associated Press, File)
Posted: September 25, 2011

It's hard to tell who is having the worst September - Barack Obama or the Boston Red Sox - but I give the nod to the president, if only because of the scandal involving Solyndra.

Perhaps you're asking: "Who the heck is Solyndra? Another White House intern?" Uh, no. It's not that kind of scandal. Solyndra is a bankrupt solar-panel manufacturer, a metaphor for an administration in serious political trouble.

Solyndra isn't Watergate or Iran-Contra or Monicagate, but it's certainly no boon for Obama when the company's executives invoke their right to remain silent. That happened Friday. They took the Fifth during a congressional hearing. Solyndra was supposed to be the superstar exemplar of Obama's green agenda, yet here we have its top people clamming up via the constitutional route long favored by mobsters.

Consider this a gift-wrapped package for the Republicans, who are hungry as always for evidence of Obama ineptitude, particularly on the eve of the '12 campaign. The details of the Solyndra affair are not very sexy, nor do they fit on a bumper sticker - but they can be easily refashioned as rhetorical weapons.

Such as: Obama's economic stewardship is so bad that he can't even create green jobs.

Such as: Obama plays politics with the taxpayers' money.

Such as: How many more Obama-connected firms will taxpayers have to foot the bill for?

And hey, since even Jon Stewart has seen fit to skewer Obama over Solyndra, it's certainly fair game for Republicans to do the same. As Stewart shouted out to the GOP, "That custom-tailored Obama scandal you ordered is finally here!"

The gist is that, in early 2009, the Obama team steered a $535 million taxpayer-backed loan to the solar company, with the expectation that Solyndra would make solar panels and create 1,100 jobs. George Kaiser, a major Obama donor and key Solyndra investor, visited the White House four times before the loan was approved. (Republicans: "Crony capitalism!")

Solyndra's top executives insisted at the time that the company was in the prime of health. Top federal bureaucrats were not so sure - one White House budget analyst contended in an e-mail, "This deal is not ready for prime time" - but they were repeatedly pushed by higher powers to OK the deal. One official at the Office of Management and Budget referred, in an e-mail, to "the time pressure we are under to sign off on Solyndra." (Those e-mails were aired in the initial congressional hearings.)

They dutifully signed off. Vice President Biden hailed the loan at a September 2009 groundbreaking ceremony, and Obama followed up eight months later with a photo-op visit to Solyndra, where he declared "companies like Solyndra are leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future."

Whereupon the future for Solyndra got dimmer.

To make its solar panels, the company used silicon - at a time when its competitors were using a far less costly material, polysilicon. Which meant that Solyndra was increasingly being priced out of the market for solar panels. The result? Solyndra went bankrupt last month, 1,100 people lost their jobs, leaving taxpayers on the hook for the loan. Then the FBI showed up to raid the place.

Questions abound, guaranteeing that this story will continue to dribble out. Did Obama's people do their homework on Solyndra's business model? Was the loan approval rushed? What did they know about Solyndra's woes, and when did they know it? Four months before the bankruptcy filing, an administration aide wrote to a Solyndra executive, "Keep up the good work! We're cheering for you."

A bit of perspective on this misadventure would be helpful.

Yes, $535 million is a lot of taxpayer money; on the other hand, according to federal figures, that's less than the taxpayer tab for two days of occupation in Iraq. Second, taxpayers shell out trillions in defense spending to ensure via military prowess that foreign oil flows here unabated - and then they pay for the environmental consequences. Third, Obama didn't invent the green-loan program; that honor goes to the '05 Republican Congress (which enacted the law), and George W. Bush (who signed it). In fact, it was Bush's Energy Department that launched the loan process for Solyndra.

But none of that matters right now; in Washington parlance, the political "optics" look bad for Obama. Clean, green energy has long been a key plank in his agenda, yet now we have the prospect of a drip-drip scandal that Republicans can frame as a metaphor for his job performance. It's true that scandals flare and fade with increasing rapidity in our ADD culture, but the numerous federal probes are likely to keep this one flickering, with Solyndra as Obama's albatross.

That won't satisfy the GOP, however. Going forward, conservatives can be expected to invoke "Solyndra" as a synonym for "government meddling," to trumpet one company's demise as proof that Washington should play no role in nurturing green technology - or any other innovations.

They will simply ignore the historical fact that government has long been a financial nurturer, in everything from synthetic rubber to the Internet. Instead they will roll their eyes at prospective new ventures and say, "What's this, another Solyndra?" Sure enough, the conservative Club for Growth declared Thursday that proposed tax credits for the natural gas industry constitute "the same misguided principles behind the decision to spend taxpayer dollars on Solyndra."

Granted, the urge to score points against Obama is tough to resist. But, as Republicans wisely acknowledged when they enacted the loan law, going green is clearly a bipartisan imperative. We'd lose as a nation if it devolved into a partisan food fight.


Contact Dick Polman at dpolman@phillynews.com or @dickpolman1 on Twitter.

 

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