The Biggest (and Least Discussed) Lie of the Debate

By now, almost every claim and counter-claim from last night’s presidential debate has been picked apart. But there’s one assertion that has received minimal attention in the after-action coverage of the debate — and it was one of the most blatant lies of the night.


The comment came about two thirds of the way through the conversation. As Romney was riffing on funding education, he pivoted to his talking points on Obama’s support of renewable energy and let this whopper loose:

“And these [clean energy] businesses, many of them have gone out of business, I think about half of them, of the ones have been invested in, have gone out of business.”

The New York Times, one of the few mainstream organizations to follow up on this claim, called Romney’s comment a “gross overstatement.”

Actually, it’s much more offensive than that.

At a time when the U.S. clean energy industry is supporting thousands of innovative businesses in every state (many of them small businesses), hundreds of thousands of jobs (including tens of thousands in Romney’s home state of Massachusetts), and leveraging tens of billions in private capital, Romney casually tried to claim that “half” of businesses that received federal incentives have gone out of business. That’s not even remotely close to the truth.

Okay, let’s throw the Romney camp a bone. To the small number of people who actually monitor this topic, it was clear that he probably meant the loan guarantee program — a tool that provides government backing of private loans in order to leverage capital for “first of a kind” renewable energy projects

After numerous tweets last night calling Romney out, Time Magazine’s Michael Grunwald confirmed today via twitter that the campaign was backtracking: “Now Romney camp tells me he misspoke, only meant to single out loan program.”

So let’s narrow Romney’s statement down to the loan guarantee program. Are we getting closer to the truth? No.

The loan guarantee program Romney referenced supported dozens of companies. Of those companies, four recently went bankrupt due to difficult market conditions. But that’s out of 33 companies that received loan guarantees or commitments for loan guarantees. That translates to a 10 percent failure rate representing roughly 2 percent of budgeted funds for the program — a big difference from the 50 percent failure rate that Romney claimed.

At the same time, the program has supported some of the largest wind and solar projects in the world, helping double generation of U.S. renewable electricity in four years.

In fact, an independent review of the loan guarantee program found that it will cost $2 billion lessthan actually budgeted for. (Yes, the program is designed to accept a certain level of failure, which is an important part of supporting innovative projects that need help accessing private capital).

Along with his false comments about bankruptcies, Romney claimed that Obama had “provided $90 billion in tax breaks to green energy” in one year. While $90 billion is an accurate number, it was certainly not all for tax breaks and it was not all deployed at once. (In fact, some of it still hasn’t been spent). The money was set aside through the stimulus package for grants, competitive prices, demonstration projects, and loan guarantees — with $3.4 billion going toward “clean coal,” a technology that Romney said “I like” during the debate.

The real problem with these claims isn’t how detached they are from reality. It’s that Romney likely wants them to be true.

Over the last year, Romney has made a conscious decision to run against clean energy — releasingfalse and misleading ads that disparage government support for the industry.

If the clean energy industry really were suffering — not booming like it is — then he’d be able score politically. But polls show Americans still really, really like federal support of the sector and that messaging around the bankrupt solar company Solyndra isn’t sticking. So, why not claim that half of companies went bankrupt? That will get people’s attention, right?

When you’ve convinced yourself of something that’s not true, it’s very easy to make your false claims as grandiose as you like.

For a review of all claims on energy during the debate, check out our fact check from last night.

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