Do Romney's "crony capitalism" claims hold up?
Are Mitt Romney's charges that President Obama engaged in "crony capitalism" fair?
Romney - who has been fighting off attacks on his tenure at Bain Capital and refusal to release more of his tax returns - went on the offensive this week against what he cast as the president's practice of using taxpayer dollars to pay off his donors.
"I am ashamed to say that we're seeing our president hand out money to the businesses of campaign contributors, when he gave money, $500 million in loans to a company called Fisker that makes high end electric cars, and they make the cars now in Finland," he said in Pennsylvania Tuesday." That is wrong and it's got to stop. That kind of crony capitalism does not create jobs and it does not create jobs here."
Fisker is just one of the examples Romney and Republicans have cited. They include:
- Solar power company Solyndra, which went bankrupt after receiving a $535 million loan guarantee from the government. One of the lead investors in the company was a fundraiser for the president named George Kaiser. Another Obama fundraiser who oversaw the loan guarantee program, Steven Spinner, pushed for the guarantee.
- Steve Westley, who raised more than $500,000 for Mr. Obama in 2008. Republicans complain that Westley, who has close ties to the Department of Energy, benefited from $500 million in taxpayer dollars in the form of energy department loans. They have called on the Obama administration to release a conflict of interest review related to Westley's service on an Energy Department advisory board.
- BrightSource Energy, which received a $1.6 billion loan guarantee after hiring a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden to lobby the administration.
- And then there's Fisker Automotive, which Republicans suggest received $500 million in loan guarantees because Obama fundraiser John Doerr had connections to the company.
Romney and his allies say all this adds up to a clear pattern: Mr. Obama using taxpayer dollars to reward the people who raised money to help him get elected.
Some of Romney's charges feel like a stretch. Let's start with Fisker: One major problem with the charge is that the investment company that Republicans have pointed to in making their claims has both Republican and Democratic donors - and the man who appears to be the biggest Fisker enthusiast there actually donated mostly to Republicans, not Democrats. The Washington Post fact checker gave the Fisker claims "four Pinocchio's" - its highest rating for falsehoods.
But there are legitimate questions here. Westley's company, for example, boasted that it is "uniquely positioned to take advantage of this surge of interest and growth" by the Obama administration in committing billions to clear tech companies. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who has hosted Obama fundraisers, is in contact with Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House staff.
Without some sort of smoking gun, however, it's impossible to draw definitive connections between donations and government action. Politicians can always say that they and their donors share a common philosophy. In this case, the Obama administration can say that the loans were approved properly - not because the companies involved were tied to Obama donors. Whether you believe that is likely tied to how you already feel about the administration.
Then there's the bigger picture. The most naive intern on Capitol Hill is well aware that donors don't expect their money to be ignored. Members of Congress routinely vote in ways that serve their donors' interests. On the presidential level, it's common for top donors to receive plum ambassadorships once their candidate takes office.
It's also important to note that one reason that Republicans can make these charges is that the Obama campaign releases its "bundlers" - the fundraisers who gather hundreds of thousands of dollars for the candidate - to the public. Romney's campaign has refused to release his bundlers, an inconvenient fact that Republicans have tried to brush off when they make their claims about alleged cronyism.
And Romney himself isn't immune to cronyism charges. As Buzzfeed reported, 15 out of 17 of Romney's political appointees in 2006, when he was Massachusetts governor, were Romney donors.
Romney was asked by CBS affiliate KDKA this week if he had given any tax breaks to donors while governor. He responded that there was "one circumstance where one individual was looking for help from my administration and he had been a contributor to my campaign and we set up a very elaborate process to make sure neither I nor members of my staff were involved in the decision making."
The Romney campaign did not respond to two emails asking what Romney was specifically referring to. Scott Helman, the Boston Globe reporter who co-authored the book "The Real Romney," told CBS News that Romney's record is generally better than most politicians; he said in an email that the former governor "took admirable steps to sidestep the traditional practice of patronage and hackery."
Where does that leave us? With lots of unanswered questions. But we can say this: Without more evidence, it's unlikely that Romney's charges that Mr. Obama has engaged in cronyism that goes beyond business of usual are unlikely to stick.
With reporting by Chris Leyden.
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