Did IRS bureaucrats, liberal media help Obama win in 2012?

A House Oversight and Government Reform Committee memo suggests that IRS scrutiny of the tea party movement – egged on by liberal media – helped Obama win reelection in 2012.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. holds up a document as he speaks to IRS official Lois Lerner during a hearing on IRS scrutiny of tea party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. Lerner told the committee she did nothing wrong and then invoked her constitutional right to not answer lawmakers' questions.

A new House Oversight and Government Reform Committee “interim memo” on the IRS scandal suggests that media coverage of the tea party movement as “dangerous” and full of “rage” pushed IRS agents to scrutinize conservative groups unfairly.

But could such collusion to target groups with the words “tea party” or “constitution” in their names – a program that the IRS acknowledges was a mistake – have chilled political speech to such an extent that it cleared the way for President Obama’s victory?

As it was, Obama won the popular vote by 5 million votes in 2012 over challenger Mitt Romney, while carrying 332 Electoral College votes to Mr. Romney’s 206.

But what has become clear to many conservatives is that federal agencies going back to 2010 appeared to openly champion liberal causes by, for example, putting on special conferences to show black churches how to express political opinions without losing their tax-exempt status, all the while stonewalling tea party groups with questions ranging from queries about religion to personal relationships.

At the very least, writes the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto this week, “Barack Obama’s reelection deserves to be listed with an asterisk in the record books. We know only that he did win with the help of a corrupt IRS. And if indeed the election was stolen, many in the media were complicit in its theft.”

The IRS has apologized, several officials lost their jobs, President Obama has assured Americans that the IRS doesn’t target people for their political beliefs, and Congress is investigating.

Lois Lerner, who is on leave from the top spot at the IRS’ tax exempt unit, has pleaded the Fifth Amendment – her right to not incriminate herself. Meanwhile, some of the central figures in the scandal have sought out high-profile Washington counsel as Republican-led House committees grind away at the truth.

So far, that truth has been slippery.

Officials first pointed fingers at a few IRS agents in Cincinnati. But Congressional investigators found that the decision web reached throughout the IRS, reaction that was tied heavily to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, which allowed rich Americans and corporations to fund tax-exempt groups allowed to do some political work.

The interim memo released this week by the Oversight committee – chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, known for his political aggressiveness – suggests professional malfeasance on a more ambiguous scale.

According to this theory, the IRS responded to anti-tea party frenzy in the Beltway press, all of which a growing contingent of conservatives believe had a deeply chilling effect on grass roots organizers, who had a lot to lose if they became political targets of the IRS.

From its beginning in early 2009 to its 2010 heyday, when it helped Republicans take back control of the House, the tea party emerged as a powerful antidote to Obama’s outspoken progressivism.

It focused mostly on debt, spending and taxes, but also became wrapped up in allegations of racism, nativism, and xenophobia that hurt its overall image. The movement did not have as much of an impact on the 2012 elections, partly, some conservatives argue, because of the IRS targeting of grassroots groups.

The House Oversight memo suggests that some of those tea party criticisms were fomented and fueled by the liberal Beltway media, which sent what former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan has called “dogwhistle” messages to IRS brass to scrutinize the validity of the tea party movement and local groups seeking tax exempt status to spread their message.

“Washington Post columnists accused Tea Party groups of ‘smolder[ing] with anger’ [Colbert King] and practicing a brand of patriotism reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan [Courtland Milloy],” the memo states. “Another Post columnist opined in late March 2010 that Tea Party rhetoric ‘is calibrated not to inform but to incite’ [Eugene Robinson]. In April 2010, Reuters tied the Tea Party movement to ‘America's season of rage and fear.’”

The idea that the IRS did the President’s political bidding by proxy has been widely ridiculed by the left, but the idea lives on among conservative critics, who have long chided what they see as Obama’s bully presidency, where friends are rewarded and enemies punished.

“Mr. Obama didn’t need to pick up the phone. All he needed to do was exactly what he did do, in full view, for three years: Publicly suggest that conservative political groups were engaged in nefarious deeds; publicly call out by name political opponents whom he’d like to see harassed; and publicly have his party pressure the IRS to take action,” Ms. Noonan said on “Meet the Press” back in May, as the scandal was breaking.

Yet Lloyd Mayer, a tax law expert at the University of Notre Dame who was in the room when Ms. Lerner made her apology on May 10, suggests that Congressional investigators can’t find a smoking gun connection to Obama’s political operation because there may not be one.

That leaves the option that the program was exactly what the IRS has described: A badly thought-out attempt to gauge the seriousness of the tea party groups before approving their applications to become tax exempt.

Per IRS protocol, says Mr. Mayer, that job should have gone to IRS auditors who would have been able to follow up to determine whether the groups were doing what they told the IRS they were going to do. Nevertheless, to suggest that Beltway coverage and political spin – including the New York Times editorial page coming out in support of the IRS tea party scrutiny – changed the election is “laughable,” says Mayer.

Tea party groups “clearly were burdened, this was clearly a distraction from what they wanted to do … but I don’t find it credible that if the IRS had approved all these applications with relatively minimal questioning, that that would allow the tea party to become this incredible political force and change a presidential election,” says Mayer.

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