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For a very 21st-century president like Barack Obama, there is something especially embarrassing about the return of the very 20th-century IRS scandal. As if the allegations of targeting political enemies weren’t enough, now the president must contend with missing emails.
Reminiscent of nothing so much as Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods’s infamous selective erasures of her boss’s tapes, today’s sought-after communiqués are, we are told, victim of a crashed computer and a failed hard drive, both belonging to Lois Lerner, the chief of the IRS tax-exempt office at the center of the controversy.
And in good Nixonian style, it’s not just Lerner whose emails have gone unaccounted for. Six more IRS employees connected to the original targeting outrage have records the agency cannot submit to Congress—including Nikole Flax, chief of staff to the man eventually fired for his role in targeting conservative groups while serving as acting commissioner.
Best of all, from a salacious standpoint, congressional investigators now know that the IRS kept the missing emails a secret since perhaps February of this year. Lies! Omissions! A coverup! The possibilities are endless, and weirdly reassuring in these disjointed and murky times. After such a long drumbeat of bad news seemingly “from the future”—from drones and NSA surveillance to fresh chaos in Iraq—the classic, petty terrain of the IRS scandal returns us to comfortably familiar ground.
This time, however, the character types have changed. Where Nixon was obsessed with the strength of his domestic enemies, Obama sees only weakness, when he can bother himself to care. And where Nixon’s congressional foes stumbled onto an unprecedented act of presidential malfeasance, today’s Republicans have cried scandal so many times, they’re in danger of crying wolf.
Fortunately for the GOP, Americans have an instinctive appreciation for the seriousness of the charges facing the IRS. Putative scandals like the Benghazi incident strike many of us as not just farfetched but almost, as they put it in Spinal Tap, “best left unsolved.” The realm of foreign policy is a realm of mystery for most Americans, a place where government schemes will never be fully revealed and the alternative to trust is a fruitless journey into rabbit-hole speculation.
The possibility of being abused by the IRS, however, requires no such paranoia. Perhaps few of us believe the IRS is really after us in particular; the more general idea that the IRS treats us unequally, in part for political reasons, strikes at the core of reasonable, mainstream distrust of government. After all, the power to tax is the power to destroy. If there’s one place we’d expect to find government harassment carried out under our noses, it’d be the IRS, which harasses us year in and year out anyway.
One doesn’t need reams of reports or public-opinion polls to understand the gut plausibility of an IRS scandal in full flower. Yet the Obama administration seems not to have imagined that this burgeoning problem might require more attention than anything else Republicans are screaming about. Rather than a president in over his head, Obama is behaving like a president who doesn’t believe the onus should be on him to head off an appearance of impropriety at the pass.
No matter how old-school the IRS scandal feels, that naïve arrogance feels rather new on the scene—the sort of attitude given off by people who believe deep down that if you have the correct stance on policy, you ought to be immune to political attack.
To be sure, today’s frenzy often becomes tomorrow’s trivia. A trove of Bush-era emails that had been quote-unquote-lost resurfaced in 2009, the victim of an ostensible act of mislabeling. Despite an operational information technology budget topping $2 billion, the IRS, like much of the federal government, is as susceptible to mere incompetence as it is to malign intent. Republicans might follow the trail of bread crumbs and find there’s nothing at the end.
Democrats should not chuckle themselves to sleep tonight, however. How an administration responds to crisis can make an even greater impression on voters than the crisis itself. We assume that bad things will happen and that government will bungle the people’s business. We expect our politicians to care, however.
Leading Democrats, not just in the White House, have been lulled into a false sense of security by what they see as the manic, knee-jerk criticism that dominates the right wing. Obama’s reputation for neglecting problems he sees as beneath him has been cast in an even more unflattering light by the varieties of dismissiveness on display in his party. Whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s trademark evasive laugh or Nancy Pelosi’s infamous incomprehension of the constitutional issues surrounding Obamacare, too many top Democrats are seen too often acting as if no reasonable opposition to their agenda can even exist.
This, more than any one scandal, is likely to hobble the party for the next few election cycles. It’s relatively easy to wave away a single scandal. It’s one of the hardest tricks in politics to wave away concerns that you wave away concerns too much.
“Sometimes stuff just happens,” Lerner emailed the IRS techs in 2011 as they tried to salvage her hard drive. World-weary wisdom, perhaps. But it’s the kind of involuntary campaign slogan that costs political parties big elections.
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