Crank Up the Scandal Machine

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the Obama administration is that it has been in office nearly three years without a significant scandal, or really any scandal at all. This is pretty much unprecedented in recent decades. It's particularly notable that the Recovery Act, with a few hundred billion dollars spread around the country to all kinds of projects, came off without any charges of graft or waste.

But now, Republicans think they have found their scandal, in the solar company Solyndra, which got a half-billion dollars in federal loan guarantees and has now gone bankrupt. We're just learning about what happenned, but it appears that the administration was too taken with this company's potential, and pushed to get the loan approved quickly so it could trumpet Solyndra as a symbol of its commitment to clean energy and reviving American industry through modern, whiz-bang technologies.

So ought it to be a "scandal"? Here's a list off the top of my head of some things that a real scandal ought to feature:

  • Actual criminal activity (for example, the Watergate break-in and other associated crimes).
  • Corruption and graft (your old-school Teapot Dome-type thing)
  • Subversion of the stated goals and policies of the government (trading arms for hostages in Iran-Contra)
  • Intentional deception of the public (Iran-Contra, Watergate)
  • Waste of substantial government funds (the billions of dollars in American cash that disappeared in Iraq).

We could come up with others, but so far the only thing the Solyndra case appears to feature is the waste of money. And in this case, it wasn't like we didn't know we were taking a risk. When the government acts like a venture capitalist, it takes risks, just like venture capitalists do. The factors that led to Solyndra's demise (decreasing prices for silicon, aggressive Chinese development of solar technologies) weren't completely unforeseeable, but they weren't so obvious that a lot of private investors didn't also invest in the company. The administration wanted to promote green technology, and thought (incorrectly as it turned out) that Solyndra would be a successful business worth supporting and promoting. But there hasn't been any intimation of anything criminal, anyone getting a payoff, any subversion of the government's goals, or any public officials lying about it.

But that won't matter. Remember Whitewater? Taxpayers spent tens of millions of dollars investigating the failed land deal between Bill Clinton and some of his friends, an investigation that ultimately blossomed to include a young White House intern. But in the original deeds, there were no awful crimes committed, there were no public funds involved, no one got killed, and in short, it was a big nothing. But that didn't stop Republicans from successfully turning it into a "scandal," a word that during the 1990s came to mean "whatever Republicans are yelling about this week."

It's important to keep in mind that the conservative outrage machine is much, much more sophisticated and developed than it was in the 1990s. Fox News wasn't created until 1996, and in those early years it was just a shadow of what it is today. There were no conservative web sites and blogs, fewer conservative publications, fewer national right-wing radio shows. That the actual facts of the Solyndra case are unfortunate but not truly scandalous is irrelevant. They haven't had anything better to grab hold to as evidence for what they genuinely believe is the inherent corruption of the Obama administration, so they're going to be talking about little else for weeks or even months. And of course, the rest of the media, terrified as always at being accused of "liberal bias," will decide that "questions are being raised," so they need to talk about it endlessly too. Just you wait.

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