Lay off the Konarka: Dem energy message risks defeating Dem energy message
So, what’s the state of play on energy in the presidential race? I’m glad you asked.
Broadly, what’s happened is that both parties now perceive, accurately, that the public is pro-energy. That’s why both parties are grappling for the “all of the above” slogan.
“Pro-energy,” in the U.S. public’s case, means pro more energy, cheaper energy, cleaner energy, and more secure energy. What the public does not like is the trade-offs between those goals. It doesn’t like hearing that it has to give anything up. It doesn’t like hearing about “anti-energy” penalties and prohibitions. And it never likes favoritism, waste, fraud, or generic “spending.”
Given that all energy policies involve trade-offs between various desiderata, a political party’s ability to sell an energy policy to the public hinges on its ability to evoke the right frames. More/cheaper/cleaner/safer energy always polls well. Restraints, added cost, pollution, and foreign-ness (especially Middle Eastern-ness) do not.
This basic dynamic helps explain why Mitt Romney is not dropping Solyndra. Conservatives still see it as one of their bests attacks on Obama. It evokes Big Government spending, cronyism, waste, and failure (i.e., less energy). It tars the rest of Obama’s clean-energy programs, nay his entire agenda, by association.
The dynamic also explains why the right is going after Obama for allegedly (though not actually) leaving coal and other fossil fuels out of his energy strategy. They don’t want him to capture the pro-energy label. “All of the above,” says Romney, means that Obama is “for all sources of energy that come from above the ground, not for things that come below the ground.” He’s not really pro-energy — he’s just pro-some-energy!
The Dem response has two tracks, one I think is politically smart and one I worry is shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating.
The smart response is to double-down on being the pro-energy candidate. That’s what Obama and his cabinet have been doing. They boast about increased oil and natural gas production while also insisting that clean energy innovation is a key part of an “all of the above” strategy — a part that the GOP is leaving out. Republicans aren’t pro-energy — they’re just pro-some-energy!
This is obviously not what any climate hawk would choose. “All of the above” is, as a matter of policy guidance, absurd. Nonetheless, it is aimed squarely at the bulk of public opinion; that’s the battle that must be fought and won.
The other track of the Dem response is less wise. It amounts to, “They did it too!” History is littered with Republicans enthusiastically grubbing for federal support for clean energy (and dirty energy) projects and companies in their home districts. Their sudden indignation at loan guarantees and the like smells of hypocrisy. I’ve indulged in this kind of thing myself on occasion.
You see, Romney helped secure the company a $1.5 million loan when he was governor of Massachusetts, and — here’s the twist — it recently declared bankruptcy! Ha ha! Romney “picked winners” in a failed bid at crony capitalism! I’m rubber, you’re glue, bounces off me and sticks to you.
This is an entirely Beltway-focused line of attack, meant to serve journalists the hypocrisy stories they find irresistible. But at what cost? The intent of the attack, as I hear it, is to show that Republicans generally and Romney specifically were “for it before they were against it” — they’ve flip-flopped on alternative energy, from moderate to far right.
Is that what’s coming across, though? When Konarka is called “Romney’s Solyndra,” I suspect political elites do not hear “Romney’s civic-minded attempt to support clean energy.” They hear scandal and vulnerability. They hear that funding clean-energy companies is a dark secret to be embarrassed about; that government support for clean energy is always cronyism; that solar is not a viable business, even with subsidies.
This does not play to cleantech’s advantage. And it’s not true. It is absolutely in the public interest to support clean energy, programs like the stimulus bill and the DOE loan guarantee program [PDF] have been run incredibly well, and solar employs over 100,000 Americans and is rapidly approaching grid parity.
Konarka has been around since 2001. It was a spin-off from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, using organic chemistry and nanotechnology to make thin, flexible solar panels and spray-on solar dyes. In addition to $170 million worth of private funding, it received $20 million in help from the government, including from the Pentagon, the Bush White House, and, in a splashy 2003 press conference, then-Gov. Romney.
Konarka, like Solyndra, was based on a fateful bet against silicon solar panels. The hope was to innovate more efficient non-silicon alternatives and drive down the price enough to compete with silicon. Lots of companies were involved in that bet, as was quite a bit of bipartisan government support. Then along came China with its huge subsidies, manufacturing silicon panels in massive quantities, driving down the per-unit price, flooding the world with cheap product, and undercutting alternatives.
Eventually, silicon prices will rise and alternatives will become more competitive. When that day comes, we will look back on the demise of our domestic solar innovators with great regret. The fight to support them is no embarrassing secret, whether Romney or Obama did it. It was and is in our country’s best public-health, economic, and security interests. It’s a point of pride. It would be unfortunate if, in their enthusiasm to win a news cycle or two, Democrats and their spin doctors implied otherwise.