There's something about Solyndra that Republican outside spending groups just can't get enough of.
Since the fall, a pair of conservative interest groups has spent more than $9 million on a handful of television commercials bashing President Obama for the more than half-billion-dollar loan guarantee that went to the now-bankrupt California solar tube manufacturer.
With so long to go before voters actually head to the polls, that is a hefty investment, even by the standards of today's super PACs. And as the commercials continue to get air time -- the Karl Rove-backed group Crossroads GPS spent another $500,000 on cable buys just last week -- some political pundits are wondering just what those outside groups are hoping to accomplish.
One theory is that Republicans see Solyndra as a perfect weapon to finally hit Obama in the one place where he is proven to be nearly invulnerable: his personal approval numbers.
Obama's job approval, according to Gallup polling from last week, is at a middling 46 percent. That is a number Gallup noted is below the historic threshold of winning incumbents. Other polls show that voters are still highly concerned about the economy and remain split about whether the president is the best person to fix it.
But amid all that concern, Obama has remained personally popular.
A CNN poll from late December showed that when asked what they think of Obama as a person, about three-quarters of voters approve of him. That rating has generally held steady in the 70s since Obama has been in office. By comparison, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton had a personal approval ratings in the mid-20s (even while more than half of voters still approved of the job he did).
One national Republican pollster said yesterday that he believes that Republican outside groups are using Solyndra to try to muddy up the president's personal image.
"One thing you can see in polls is Obama's personal favorable and unfavorable are pretty good," the pollster said. With Solyndra "you've got a scandalous situation that you can use to start planting a seed of doubt on the personal side and personal character."
And a new chapter in the Solyndra story is about to be written.
In an attempt to take control of the expanding criticism over the Department of Energy's loan program last fall in the wake of the Solyndra bankruptcy, the White House appointed former Treasury official Herb Allison to conduct an evaluation of the performance of DOE's loan portfolio. That review, along with recommendations for enhanced monitoring of the program and a plan for establishing an early-warning system to identify troubled loans before they go the way of Solyndra, was delivered to the White House last week and is expected to be released any day.
An ongoing House Energy and Commerce Committee investigation has unearthed plenty of embarrassing emails about how the administration handled the media firestorm over the decline and bankruptcy of Solyndra, but it has yet to reveal any smoking gun that directly links Obama to the decision to approve a loan for a company that had links to some of his biggest campaign donors and campaign fundraisers. Obama administration officials have repeatedly argued that the loan decision was made by career staffers at the department on the merits and that the Solyndra loan was simply an investment in a promising new clean energy technology that unfortunately did not pan out.
But by pinning Solyndra directly on Obama in a steady stream of 30-second television commercials, the hope is that voters will start to find Obama increasingly unlikeable as the election nears, the GOP pollster said.
"They are going to take advantage of what they can to try to build a scandal," the pollster said.
The Crossroads GPS ads and commercials funded by Americans for Prosperity -- the well-funded conservative interest group with ties to the Koch brothers -- certainly do everything they can to paint Solyndra as a political backroom deal of the worst kind.
"Tell President Obama American workers aren't pawns in your political games," a recent Americans for Prosperity ad states.
"Typical Washington," a narrator states in a Crossroads GPS ad. "Obama says spend more and promises jobs. Obama donors and insiders line up for handouts."
But veteran Democratic political consultant and messaging guru Jim Duffy said yesterday that if Republicans are looking to find a wedge issue, Solyndra just is not something that he thinks is resonating with the general public.
"Maybe there is something I'm missing here, but I just don't have a sense that Solyndra is driving this election," he said.
"I think part of the problem is you're trying to force the square peg in the round hole," Duffy said of the $9 million in ads about Solyndra. "They are trying to impugn his character and this is the closest thing they've come up with."
Duffy said that trying to imply that Obama is "a Chicago-style wheeler dealer taking care of his friends" just is not believable to the average voter. And he said that those outside groups are trying so desperately to make their case that they have started to lose credibility.
GOP consultant and former top Capitol Hill aide Ron Bonjean disagreed with that assessment yesterday.
Bonjean argued that the outside groups must be hitting a nerve since Obama used his first campaign ad to push back against the Solyndra scandal and promote his clean energy agenda (Greenwire, Jan. 19).
"It's getting them somewhere. It's having traction. It's forcing Obama to respond," Bonjean said.
The Solyndra issue "shows mismanagement, political underhandedness and fiscal waste at a time when we have plenty of conventional energy resources that can be developed immediately. ... I think [the $9 million for Solyndra ads] has been well spent if their goal is to create that debate."
Duffy said that it is more likely that the Obama campaign decided to respond on the Solyndra attacks less out of fear and more out of a desire to demonstrate to Republicans that it will not let any attack go unanswered in the coming campaign.
Duffy is also not convinced that Republican outside groups are working off some grand personal approval rating strategy in their desire to go after Solyndra so strongly in the opening stages of the 2012 campaign.
More likely, he said, the conventional energy interests that are funding the outside groups, such as the billionaire Koch brothers, are scared of what Solyndra represents to their future of their bottom lines.
Duffy views the ads as more of an act of self-preservation than a savvy 2012 electoral strategy.
"Follow the money to its source," he said.
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