Laugh Lines and the IRS

The latest scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service is a serious matter, involving as it does an agency of the government using its awesome powers to quash the free speech rights of a significant portion of the country, but there’s something undeniably comical about the excuses being offered.
There was the heartfelt apology from the IRS, offered in all sincerity just moments before an inspector general’s report was about to expose the misdeeds, and then the president’s strongly worded indignation that anyone in his government would ever do harm to his political enemies. This was followed by the explanation that only a few rogue employees in a far-flung Ohio office were involved, that although subsequent testimony showed the practices were ordered from Washington it did not go any higher than the middle levels of the bureaucracy there, that the agents were only demanding extra paperwork and extraordinary questions of conservative groups because the IRS was understaffed and over-worked, and that in any case those damnable Tea Party types had it coming. The lattermost explanation was somewhat undermined by the strongly worded indignation of the president, who insisted that much like Will Rogers he only knew what he read in the papers, and although it has since been revealed that his closest aides were aware of the outrages long before they hit the papers we are assured that they just didn’t want to bother him with such trivialities.
Just as it seemed that the scandal couldn’t become any more farcical, along comes David Plouffe. The former senior advisor to President Barack Obama took to the airwaves on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday to trot out the latest lines, and somehow maintained a straight face as he assured the viewers that “This was not a political pursuit.”
The assertion proved too much for fellow guest Karl Rove, the former senior advisor to President George W. Bush, who promptly declared the utterance “Baloney, baloney.” Rove rightly pointed out that conservative groups had been targeted for extreme scrutiny and long delays before being given tax-exempt status, while groups more friendly to the administration were given cursory glances and quick approval, and demanded to know how that could not be political. Plouffe insisted that liberal groups were also targeted, but when he failed to name a single one he seemed rather flustered by the frank rebuke. Eventually he sputtered that “This was no an effort driven by the White House. It would be the dumbest political effort of all time. OK?”
This wasn’t OK by Rove, who continued to blame the president for at the very least failing to police the IRS, and one needn’t be a former Bush advisor to be skeptical about Plouffe’s assurances. The harassment of the Tea Party groups began just after they had helped the Republicans to a landslide in 2010 mid-terms and seems to have helped in a concerted effort to blunt their political power just in time for the president’s re-election, so if it was indeed the dumbest political effort of all time it was somehow quite successful. Even if it were dumb to target conservative groups, that’s no reason to believe that the White House wouldn’t do it. It was dumb to sell guns to Mexican drug gangs, and loan hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars to unviable “green” companies that had contributed to the president’s campaign, and restructure the American health care system along lines that will raise premiums and discourage employers from hiring anyone for more than 29 hours of work a week, and any number of other policies that a reasonably well-informed critic could think of, but in each case the White House went ahead and did it.
The political consequences were always mild, thanks to the complacency of a supportive press, and there was no reason anyone at the White House should have expected for this scandal to be any different. They might just get away with it yet again, always a possibility given the complacency of the general public, but in the meantime they’re provoking some unintended laughs that can’t be good for business.

— Bud Norman

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