IRS tea party scandal: How bad for Obama?

President Obama himself has slammed the reported IRS actions regarding tea party and other conservative groups. But inevitably, Republicans will attempt to link the White House to this activity.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama gestures during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Monday, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Obama himself has slammed the reported IRS actions regarding tea party and other conservative groups during the press conference.

The Internal Revenue Service applied special scrutiny to applications for tax-exempt status from tea party and other conservative groups, according to a draft inspector general’s report obtained by the Associated Press.

IRS officials on Friday apologized for what they said was “inappropriate” targeting of such organizations in the 2012 election. They blamed low-level employees in the tax agency’s Cincinnati office, which handles most applications for tax-exempt 501(c)(4) status.

But contrary to IRS public statements, senior officials at the agency knew of such targeting as early as June 2011, according to the document obtained by AP. And the IRS looked especially hard at applicants who “criticize how the country is run” or who sought to educate the public on ways “to make America a better place to live,” says a CNN report.

President Obama himself slammed this activity at a press conference Monday.

“If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on, then that’s outrageous and there is no place for it. They have to be held fully accountable,” Mr. Obama said at a joint appearance with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

But inevitably, Republicans will attempt to link the White House to this activity. Is this as bad as it looks for the Obama administration, politically speaking?

The full answer to that may depend on one’s own ideological disposition. But yes, as far as apparent scandals go, this one is bad. It’s likely to generate headlines for weeks to come.

First of all, the facts don’t look good.

It is true that the IRS was facing a flood of new applicants for 501(c)(4) status in the wake of changes in campaign law and that many of those applicants leaned Republican due to the fact that the White House and Senate are controlled by Democrats. It is possible that IRS officials tried to push a broader approach to special scrutiny, only to have GOP-specific code words creep back in.

But that doesn’t make what’s come out so far right. Even partisan Democrats agree with that.

“This needs to stop, instantly, and it’s legitimate to question how the practice started and how extensive it became,” writes Ed Kilgore, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, in his Washington Monthly “Political Animal” blog.

Second, the IRS revelations are appearing to confirm what tea party groups have long believed anyway: The White House is using all means at its disposal, including government agencies, to target them. That means Republicans will dig at this all the harder.

Washington Post political bloggers Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan have a good post making this point Monday.

“Any political scandal that begins by validating previously held contentions of a political opposition is bound to be trouble,” says a Senate GOP staff member quoted by Messrs. Cillizza and Sullivan. “When it includes denials that have been proven false, it gets much worse.”

And third, there are the inevitable historical associations. Richard Nixon used the IRS against his enemies. President Nixon resigned facing near-certain impeachment. A few Republicans, such as Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, have already begun using the “I word” in connection with the administration’s response to the fatal terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph incorrectly described impeachment proceedings as they related to Nixon.]

Not all GOP figures see the scandal going that far. But the party as a whole will surely attempt to link the White House with the IRS actions.

“I’d b shocked if WH told IRS 2do it, but when O vilifies Tparty & VP likens them 2 terrorists, bureaucrats follow the culture,” tweeted former Bush administration press spokesman Ari Fleischer on Monday.

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