Mitt Romney’s Ads: Still Wrong on the Stimulus

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Steve Nesius / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks to supporters during a campaign rally in St. Petersburg, Florida, May 16, 2012.

I’ve been on leave writing a book about the stimulus, so I’ve let others judge the Pants-on-Fire ads and Four-Pinocchio attacks and Solyndra-related nonsense that Republicans have been peddling about the stimulus. It’s certainly created jobs for fact-checkers. But now that I’m back, I suppose it’s my duty to weigh in on Mitt Romney’s new stimulus-bashing ad–apparently part of a new stimulus-bashing campaign–because it’s not just a rehash of the same old bogus charges. It’s added a brand new bogus charge that perfectly captures the up-is-down stimulus debate.

Most of the ad is typical schadenfreude about Solyndra, along with three other stimulus-funded clean-energy companies that have run into problems. For the umpteenth time: Some of these companies will fail. That’s capitalism. That’s lending. That’s life. As one Obama aide told me: Some students who get Pell grants are going to end up drunks on the street. I’ve written about this before, and I’ll write about it again, but so far there have been fewer Solyndra-type failures than Congress expected. The Energy Department’s controversial loan program has billions in excess reserves. The stimulus did not just promote one company or one technology or one pathway towards a clean-energy economy; it invested in all kinds of alternatives to fossil fuels, so they could battle it out in the marketplace. And for what it’s worth, the Bush Administration was gung-ho about the Solyndra loan, too.

(PHOTOS: Chad Ress – America Recovered)

It was a line near the end of Romney’s ad that caught my attention: “The Inspector General said contracts were steered to ‘friends and family.’” That sounded like news. I’ve spent two years in stimulus-world, and I had no idea an inspector general had said that. I asked the Romney campaign for documentation, and it produced a Newsweek article asserting that Energy Department inspector general Gregory Friedman “has testified that contracts have been steered to ‘friends and family.’”

Except that Newsweek article was an excerpt from the book “Throw Them All Out,” written by Peter Schweizer, a right-winger who has served as an adviser to Sarah Palin’s PAC, edited one of Andrew Breitbart’s websites, and written a slew of books portraying liberals as pond scum. Not exactly a disinterested source. And it turns out that the inspector general never testified that stimulus contracts were steered to friends and family. He said his office was investigating whether stimulus contracts were steered to friends and family. So far, it hasn’t confirmed that any were.

That’s the real news. The Department of Energy has handled $37 billion in stimulus money, more than its annual budget. Overall, the federal government has distributed over $800 billion in stimulus money. Where are the sweetheart deals? Where are the actual outrages that are provoking outrage? During the debate over the stimulus, experts warned that as much as 5% to 7% of the stimulus could be lost to fraud. But by the end of 2011, independent investigators had documented only $7.2 million in fraud, about 0.001%. As I’ve written, reasonable people can disagree whether the stimulus was a good thing, but it’s definitely been a well-managed thing.

(VIDEO: Governor Mitt Romney Talks to TIME)

That will still be true even if it turns out that one of over 200,000 stimulus contracts was in fact steered to somebody’s friend or family. And it will still be true even if another stimulus-funded company fails before Election Day. (A123 Systems has a lot of smart people, but I don’t think they were planning to lose $90 million last quarter.) There’s a legitimate debate to be had about the Obama Administration’s green industrial policy, but the current debate over “crony capitalism” is a debate over a fantasy stimulus. Even Congressman Darrell Issa, the GOP’s chief Solyndra investigator, admitted after a year of relentless digging that there was no there there. “Is there criminal activity? Perhaps not,” he said. “Is there a political influence and connections? Perhaps not.”

Will that stop Romney and his fellow Republicans from spending the summer denouncing the stimulus as a modern Teapot Dome? Hopefully not. Did I mention that my stimulus book is coming out in August?

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