Mitt Romney secretly traveled to Fremont, Calif., with a select group of reporters on Thursday to hold a surprise press conference in front of the headquarters of bankrupt solar company Solyndra. The cloak and dagger routine somewhat overshadowed the proceedings — Romney told reporters with a straight face that he feared the White House would sabotage him if things weren’t kept under wraps. But the event itself provides the most dramatic example of Romney’s ongoing effort to resurface the months-old Solyndra story for the general election.
Solyndra received more than $500 million in loan guarantees through a Department of Energy program begun under President Bush in 2005, but struggled and ultimately went bankrupt. Romney has put the story at the forefront of his campaign recently, declaring it an example of “crony capitalism” gone bad (a handful of Solyndra executives donated to Obama’s campaign) and a perversion of the free market. The White House has defended itself from both charges, arguing that Solyndra was already on the fast track for DOE aid under Bush and that clean-energy programs are critical to job growth and energy independence despite missteps by individual companies.
“It’s a symbol not of success but of failure,” Romney told reporters. “I’m afraid the reason that the stimulus has been unsuccessful, that the turnaround has taken so long to occur, that the recovery has been tepid, is that the president fails to understand the basic nature of free enterprise in America.”
Romney and the GOP have been using the Solyndra story to tie together several disparate campaign messages. The GOP has tried to spread the notion that government spending in the wake of the massive 2008 financial collapse failed to make a strong impact on unemployment — Romney has even said it made the recession worse, despite a plethora of nonpartisan studies indicating it prevented significant job losses.
Romney has also cited Solyndra as a rejoinder to attacks on his career at Bain Capital, in which some companies purchased by Bain suffered layoffs and bankruptcy even as Bain made millions off them overall.
Democrats pushed back Thursday, noting that Romney himself had made government investments in promising industries as governor of Massachusetts, some of which ended in default when the companies went bankrupt. One biotech firm lured to the state with taxpayer benefits, for example, left Massachusetts on the hook for $1.5 million.
“Mitt Romney’s hypocrisy knows no bounds,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement. “While he stood at Solyndra today, he refused to explain why he gave millions of dollars in government loans to campaign donors while picking winners and losers of his own as governor of Massachusetts.”
Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the DNC, called comparisons between Solyndra’s bankruptcy and bankruptcies at companies purchased by Bain “outrageous.”
“What the president did, what the Bush administration was trying to do, what Congress was doing making these investments in clean energy, was trying to dominate an industry that otherwise is going to be controlled by other countries in the world, our competitors in the marketplace, and create jobs,” Woodhouse told reporters. “There was no effort to create jobs when Romney ran Bain Capital.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.