Three Questions on the IRS Scandal

In the category of simple answers to complicated questions, I offer the following:

Is this Obama’s Watergate?

Not even close.

Watergate started with an unambiguous crime — the break-in — and the president of the United States participated for many months in a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice in the cover-up.  Nearly 40 people went to prison because of Watergate.

The current IRS scandal started with behavior that was utterly inappropriate — using the awesome power of the IRS to subject Obama opponents to extraordinary levels of harassment.  But it’s not at all clear that any crime has been committed, and despite the overheated calls for jail time from Governor Bobby Jindahl and Speaker John Boehner, it’s likely that nobody will go to jail for the IRS misdeeds.

I admire Peggy Noonan, but she mars her otherwise excellent appraisal of the matter when she starts by saying “We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.”  There are other candidates for the title of Worst Since Watergate, but for discussion purposes let’s stipulate that her statement is narrowly correct.  It’s still misleading.  It’s like saying the economic crisis that began in 2008 was “the worst downturn since the Great Depression.”  Even if that’s true — and again, other nominees are available — it’s inappropriate to make comparisons with the Depression, when unemployment reached 25%.

Is the IRS scandal, along with Benghazi revelations and the subpoenas of journalist phone records, going to damage the effectiveness of the administration in Obama’s second term?


It’s four short months since Inauguration Day, and the second-term jinx has struck President Obama unusually early.  Iran-contra erupted two years into Ronald Reagan’s second term.    The Lewinsky scandal was first disclosed a full year into Clinton’s second term.  The Iraq War started before George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election, but at this point in his second term a majority of Americans still supported the war, and consistent majority opposition did not take hold until 2006.

This isn’t Watergate, but it’s not chopped liver.  The IRS story has legs.  Congressional hearings will continue for months.  We’ll hear more and more stories like that of Catherine Englebrecht, a small business owner turned Tea Party activist in Texas, who was harassed by not just the IRS but also by the FBI, BATF and OSHA after she formed a Tea Party-related non-profit.  Agree or disagree with her politics, but the story is appalling — and Democrats are going to realize that someday, another Republican administration will be in power.  Liberal icon Jon Stewart last week lashed out at President Obama as savagely as I’ve ever seen, mocking the president’s transparent posturing at a news conference and ridiculing his repeated claims over the years that he only learned about various controversies via the news media.

Who’s the biggest winner in the IRS scandal?

The Tea Party.

What better demonstration could there be about the dangers of excessive government power than a scandal in which the Tea Party, which advocates smaller government, is targeted improperly by some of the government’s most powerful agencies?


5 thoughts on “Three Questions on the IRS Scandal

  1. You’re right, of course, as far as it goes. On the other hand, Watergate was not ” Watergate” through the summer and fall of 1972 as Nixon steamrolled over McGovern. It was nearly a year after the burglary before much attention was paid; nearly all those 40 people went to jail for perjury, obstruction or conspiracy to obstruct an investigation; and Nixon was only tied personally to the coverup with proof to support impeachment by his own tapes!

  2. The biggest jinx to Obama is that, after the powerful results, and more importantly the trends* in the ’12 election, he had a chance to govern with Repub cooperation on immigration, and the sequester was doing nothing more than further irritating the same people with the same trends that led to the ’12 election results. He also had a mandate, though he was starting slowly and ineffectively with it.

    Now he doesn’t have leverage from the people: these events are distracting the public. Can’t say they were Obama’s fault, though there is a disturbing lack of transparency and the smell of political election filtering of the Benghazi talking points. The IRS wasn’t an action of higher-ups. The DOJ action seemed to be an internal legal investigation and justified under the law, but it resonates with a lack of press freedom from prosecution under Obama, and now the liberals and Repubs can finally agree on something powerful.

    I don’t know if he and this term can recover, but his powers with the public are much greater than the Repubs’s and he has a better chance.

    The Repubs, while feasting on opportunism, have dropped immigration momentum, and cynically have ceded the gun control topic to the Dems, and even any simple meaningful reform to ignominy. Every state that has such a disaster, and every one will, will turn to the Dems. Colorado, anyone? And the 2014 trends* were toward youth, Hispanics, women, gay marriage. The Repubs have made no headway and with Virginia governor and Lt. governor candidates and the like, are going backwards, not forwards.

  3. Obama actually has more than one “Watergate” going on, and two of them have body counts (Benghazi, Fast & Furious).

    While Watergate’s break-in was unquestionably illegal, the only thing keeping the IRS actions legal was one of Obama’s many executive orders (#13522). Even with that, tampering with elections is illegal. And make no mistake, this was a coordinated effort to prevent right-wing groups from raising funds, and to intimidate donors from giving.

    This effort was directed from higher-ups. National Treasury Employees Union head Colleen Kelley met with Obama himself on numerous occasions from the very beginning of his first term. One of those meetings took place the day before the Tea Party and other conservative groups were targeted. Kelley, and the union in general, are vehemently anti-Tea Party. That probably goes without saying, but some will need it spelled out.

    This doesn’t guarantee anybody will go to prison. But I cannot imagine any reasonable, objective person condoning such tactics. Or writing/signing executive orders to put the methods in motion to begin with.

  4. Chris, Executive Order #13522 is entitled “Creating Labor-Management Forums To Improve Delivery of Government Services”. I haven’t read the entire thing, but it doesn’t seem to be pertinent, did you perhaps get the number wrong? There needs to be a lot more evidence tying this to the White House before it approaches Watergate-level status.

    Dano, it’s way to early to declare that Obama is blameless for the IRS situation and that no “higher-ups” were involved. Today the WaPo reports that the White House is changing its story about when WH officials learned about the problem:

    John, we agree that this is not Watergate, but are you suggesting that it may grow into something of similar scale? If so, I’d like to hear your reasoning, as I doubt this will ever be that big. But it’s already big enough to have a serious impact.

  5. Well, to get us started, if may be that there are crimes here, not just inappropriate conduct. Here’s a sign of that possibility:,0,6645565.story

    Assuming for the sake of argument that some IRS officials leaked tax information to Obama’s campaign, Harry Reid, pro-Democrat journalists-pundits-bloggers, or even to White House officials, which is expressly forbidden by law, that would be a crime. Given how brain dead you need to be to target groups named “Tea Party,” it’s not a stretch to believe that such leaking or targeting Obama foes with audits actually happened.

    Of course, it’s not easy to match Watergate since at the center of that scandal, the President himself was setting up the “Plumbers” to perform illegal acts of surveillance, campaign dirty tricks, etc. and a conspiracy of high officials to cover it up, lying to Congress, the FBI, the Special Prosecutor, etc.

    Still, when musing about what might be “as bad as” or “worse than Watergate” as a political matter, the key is not whether anyone goes to jail or what the President knew and when he knew it. The key is how much dirt there is to be found, how long it takes to dribble it out, and how forthcoming the administration is. Huge political damage can be done without any jail sentences.

    In one sense, the potential is worse because everyone dislikes the IRS and can relate to the way any unwanted interaction with the IRS makes your skin crawl with dread.

    We’ll see.

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