Let me explain why I remain genuinely baffled by the framework of the current discussion of the IRS scandal. There is little doubt, after the Inspector General’s report, that the Cincinnati office in charge of 501 (c) 4 scrutiny unfairly and unreasonably – even outrageously – seemed to apply political criteria for screening such groups. The question remains why they did this, what their motivations were, to what extent scrutiny of such groups was actually an important task to accomplish, how far that got distorted, and how far up the chain this decision went. These are very important questions, which is why I hope hearings can uncover more evidence than the actual report – and hold specific people accountable, apart from the resignation of the acting head of the IRS (which nonetheless has occurred).
But here’s where I do a double-take, which is roughly what happened as I was curled up on the couch last night watching Bill O’Reilly argue – with no evidence whatsoever – that the Obama administration had decided after the 2010 mid-terms to target Tea Party groups by using the IRS as a politicized bludgeon. This utterly unsubstantiated claim (see above) is now the dominant meme, the working assumption of the propagandists at Fox News. When pressed to defend this extraordinary reach, O’Reilly admitted he was purely speculating – or in his weasel words, “educated speculation.”
Then I read Mitch McConnell arguing that the GOP and its donors are “intimidated” by the Obama administration – because of its desire to see that those exercizing explicitly political speech after the Citizens United decision actually be identified by name. It’s funny, but “intimidated” is not the first adjective that springs to mind when contemplating the Senate Minority Leader. For McConnell, the First Amendment includes protection for extremely wealthy people’s total anonymity even as they funnel unlimited funds toward a political campaign. And the idea that the House Republicans or the Tea Party or the 501 (c) 4s or Karl Rove were in any way seriously intimidated does not seem, shall we say, to be reflected in their extravagant expenditures in 2012 and their evident joy in attacking their sinister, coffee-colored pinata one more time right now. And it’s worth pointing out that getting that 501 (c) 4 approval was not necessary for the entities to spend their money from the get-go. Which they did. To little avail.
Then we hear pundits like George Will and Peggy Noonan actually bring up Watergate as the closest historical analogy – which is, to put it bluntly, deranged. Remember, for example, that this scandal was not exposed by Woodward and Bernstein (although anecdotal complaints were aired in the press at the time) – but was exposed by the IRS itself. The IRS moreover also attempted to end this practice, and when that failed, set up an Inspector General report into the outrageous screening. In such an investigation, the Obama administration properly maintained an ethical distance for fear of seeming to affect the investigation’s findings. Watergate? Are they out of their fricking minds? Or cynics trying to gin up a story in a not-so-great season for ratings?
Then comes the Wall Street Journal with the coup de grace: because the White House kept itself scrupulously distant from the IG report, there is, apparently, no accountability in government:
Alexander Hamilton and America’s Founders designed the unitary executive for the purpose of political accountability. It is one of the Constitution’s main virtues. Unlike grunts in Cincinnati, Presidents must face the voters. That accountability was designed to extend not only to the President’s inner circle but over the entire branch of government whose leaders he chooses and whose policies bear his signature.
What you immediately notice is that under this scenario, Obama cannot win.