Mitt Romney came to stand on a weed-infested patch of dirt in front of the shuttered Solyndra plant in Fremont, Calif., Thursday. If you stood at the right angle, you could look past Romney’s shoulder and see a big red “for sale” sign draped on the building, dubbed by Romney the “Taj Mahal of corporations.”
Two years ago, President Barack Obama came to Solyndra under very different circumstances. The solar-power corporation was completing a second factory, which created about 3,000 temporary construction jobs and was expected to provide 1,000 permanent production jobs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the governor of California, was on the scene. The large crowd of hard hats and preening capitalists buzzed in the glow of presidential power.
“It’s here that companies like Solyndra are leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future,” said the president as he lauded such companies as “the true engine of economic growth.” Robust words rolled off his tongue — “ingenuity,” “dynamism,” “entrepreneurial spirit.”
If you go to the White House’s website, the president’s May 26, 2010, speech is billed as “remarks on the economy.” For some reason, Obamaland had chosen to showcase how the administration was boosting economic recovery by staging an event at a corporation that never had turned a profit and was building the new plant with the help of a $528 million federal loan.
A month after Obama came to Fremont, Solyndra canceled its $300 million public offering. The day after the November 2010 election, Solyndra announced it would shutter one of its plants. On Aug. 31, 2011, Solyndra closed shop and laid off most of its workers.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu quietly restructured the deal to put private investors who plunked an extra $75 million into Solyndra ahead of taxpayers in the event of a bankruptcy. Because a big Obama donor was also a Solyndra investor and Chu approved the loan despite a warning from the Office of Management and Budget, Romney used the Fremont photo op to decry “crony capitalism.”
The half-billion-dollar Solyndra deal did more than burn through taxpayer funds, Romney argued; it also sent a bad signal to investors and entrepreneurs that “the best way to get ahead is not with the best ideas and the best technology and the best people and the best marketing but instead with the best lobbyists.”
Presswise, Team Romney flubbed the Fremont event. The campaign refused to tell journalists where the stump stop would be beforehand. Why the secrecy? Romney tried to explain: “There are a number of people among the president’s team who don’t want that story to get out.” Wrong. With California Highway Patrol securing the area, clearly the powers that be weren’t interested in shutting down the Romney campaign stop.
But the press aides’ gaffe couldn’t upstage the optics of Romney in front of the shuttered plant. Two years ago, I watched as Obamaland crowed about the president’s economic prowess. His supporters argued that they had the key to economic recovery — the transformative power of green jobs. Now Obama rarely mentions green jobs.
Obama should not have come to Solyndra. The administration was warned. Two months before the event, PricewaterhouseCoopers released an audit that questioned Solyndra’s “ability to continue as a going concern.” Obama bundler Steve Westly sent an email to White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett that warned that Solyndra was burning through money and might not survive long term.
Solyndra hadn’t turned a profit since it was founded in 2005. Shortly after winning its first loan guarantee, Solyndra had applied for another loan guarantee — which the Department of Energy rightly did not approve. Nonetheless, Obama chose Solyndra to showcase his ability to create jobs.
Now the jobs are gone; the building is empty; and the assets are up for sale.
That’s the problem with “crony capitalism,” Romney concluded. “It’s heads and his cronies win and tails and the taxpayers lose.”
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is email@example.com.