A Poor Excuse for an IRS

The Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of numerous conservative groups that had applied for tax-exempt status was quite the scandal a while back, so bad that even the media took notice, the president was obliged to express his outrage, and the government’s more dogged apologists were forced to come up with some sort of explanation. Those bold enough insist there was no scandal at all thought they’d finally come up with the proof, a document indicating that the IRS was also ordered to “Be On the Look Out” for liberal groups, but it now looks as if they’ll have to find another excuse.
Claiming that the agency was mistreating citizens equally was an odd enough defense to begin with, but more information from the Treasury Department’s Inspector General who originally exposed the scandal indicate that it also has the disadvantage of being untrue. In a letter to Rep. Sander Levin, the Michigan Democrat who has been making much of the document, Inspector General for Tax Administration J. Russell George notes that the “BOLO” — in the IRS acronym — did not apply during the years being investigated, and that agency’s treatment of various groups was not equal in any case. In his politely worded slap-down of a letter George further noted that only six groups with “progressive” or “progress” in their names were cited as potential political cases between May 2010 and Mary 2012, while 292 groups with names suggesting a conservative leaning were listed, with 100 percent of the conservative groups subjected to review while only 30 percent of the liberal groups received the same treatment.
As much as some people would hate to believe that anyone in the government might want to punish its law-abiding critics for their exercise of free speech, George’s revelations are hardly surprising. The IRS’ unequal treatment of “tea party” groups followed the President’s expressed opinion that the groups were racist, the Vice President’s likening the groups to terrorists, the Mayor of New York City’s speculation that they were involved in a plot to bomb Times Square which predictably enough turned out to be the work of an Islamist extremist, and vulgar efforts to vilify the anti-tax-and-spend movement by journalists, celebrities, activists, and partisans too numerous to mention. When “tea party” groups are receiving unequal treatment from the IRS in such an atmosphere, it will take more than one document to suggest that it’s mere coincidence.
The latest excuse was better than the previous efforts to blame Republican budget cuts, which became all the more laughable in light of subsequent scandals about the IRS spending habits, but in the end it will only have the effect of getting the scandal briefly back in the news. With so many people willing to overlook this outrageous abuse of government power, the better strategy might be a shrug and hopes that yet another scandal will crowd it out of the news.

— Bud Norman

A Blast From the Past

Bob Dole was back in the news on Tuesday after an unnoticed long absence, earning a few final headlines with some pointed criticism of the Republican party, and it evoked a nostalgic feeling. The name still provokes strong feelings for everyone here in Kansas, where Dole dominated the political landscape for more than a generation, and for some of us it rekindles very personal memories.
Way back in the sultry summer of ’78 we were interns in the office of Sen. Dole, who had already achieved national prominence as the vice presidential candidate of the Republican party just two years before, and we remain grateful for the enriching experience. Among our fellow interns were two future governors of the state of Kansas, as well as several other soon-to-be eminent personages, so perhaps it didn’t enrich us as much as it could have, but it was a teenaged blast. We got to ride through Washington in a limo with the Senator, write a speech that he read verbatim on the radio, do a bit of pointless research, and get paid for little work and responsibility. The job also allowed us to enjoy his famously acerbic sense of humor, quake at his fearsome temper, and develop a generally favorable impression of his personality.
During our years working for a large state newspaper we crossed paths with Dole often, and it was almost always less pleasant. At one news conference during a minor scandal over a rather inconsequential violation of some obscure fund-raising regulation we wound up in a locally legendary spat with the senator, fueled by his characteristically personal animosity toward the paper, which had admittedly been making more of the story than was warranted, and by one biographer’s account we wound up getting the better of it. Dole never courted the Kansas press as assiduously as he did the big city papers back east, and we suspect he still holds the grudge.

He still got our vote in every race he ever ran, including the ill-fated presidential campaign against Bill Clinton in ’96, but that was mostly because he was running against Democrats. Most reporters were resistant to Dole’s charms because he was a Republican, and he probably assumed that his occasional disputes with us were for the same reason, but we were frustrated that he wasn’t nearly Republican enough. As the Fox News reporter noted in the recent interview, Dole was a longtime champion of the food stamp program, Social Security, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, and he was always willing to cut a deal with bigger government and fought hard against the Gingrich House’s efforts cut back. Although he could be admirably conservative on some important issues, and was always well to the right of anyone he ran against, Dole became an exemplar of the squishy moderate Republicanism that the party faithful are now rebelling against.
Which is what brought Dole back into the news on Tuesday. In an interview with the Fox Network he offered some mild criticism of President Obama for insufficient schmoozing with congressional leaders, but saved his harshest words for his own party. “I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘closed for repairs’ until New Year’s Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas,” he said, adding that the party has moved so far right that it wouldn’t nominate Reagan or Nixon today. For good measure he criticized the parliamentary maneuvering that has allowed the Senate Republicans to thwart several of the Democrats’ worst ideas, and called for the same sort of backroom deal-making that marked his own career.
It was infuriatingly nonsensical, especially the bizarre notion that the same party which nominated John McCain and Mitt Romney in the past two elections has gone too far right for Reagan, but it probably served Dole’s purpose of garnering some last favorable reviews from the purveyors of bien pensant opinion. Even before the interview we’d been hearing the local progressives lament the demise of the respectable Kansas Republican party epitomized by Dole, William Allen White, and Dwight Eisenhower, which they much prefer to the decidedly more rock-ribbed variety of Republicanism afoot everywhere in the state except the Kansas Senate, and Dole’s remarks will further endear him to these people. They hated him back in the day, of course, and always portrayed him as the arch-conservative “hatchet man” he’d been when he was the last Republican go to down on Nixon’s sinking ship and then as Gerald Ford’s stir-the-base running mate, but now that he’s safely in the past and no longer a threat to any Democrat he can be safely praised by his former enemies.
Why the 90 year old Dole still clamors for the approval of his enemies, rather than the respect of those disreputably right-wing Kansas who reluctantly supported him through his career, is less clear. Listening to the interview we were struck by very frail and aged Dole sounded, a stark contrast to the physically intimidating presence we recalled from his days in office, when he dominate any room he walk into just by projecting a palpable power that was only enhanced by the crippling injuries he had sustained during his heroic service in Italy during World War II, but he has neither mellowed with age nor hardened into the true conservative his admirers always wanted him to be.
Much respect is due to Dole for his service to the country in the past, but his counsel on the politics of the present should be rejected. There are no deals to be cut with the softly tyrannical quasi-socialism being imposed on the nation, no accommodations to be made that will fend off the impending insolvency of the national economy, and the Republican party has nothing to offer but the staunchest possible resistance. This won’t win the party any friends in the newsrooms of the big papers back east, but in the end they didn’t do Bob Dole any good, not when came down to him or a Democrat such as Bill Clinton, and such people are of absolutely no use in the current crisis. Dole’s fighting spirit is much needed, but he’s fighting the wrong people.

— Bud Norman

Remaking the GOP

Today is an election day here in Kansas, and at some point this afternoon we’ll finish our morning coffee and stroll over to the neighborhood Lutheran church to cast our votes in the Republican primary. It looks to be a good one.

All the action is on the Republican side of the ballot this time around. After almost four years of the hope and change thing the Democrats in these parts are so dispirited that they’re not bothering to contest many of the races, and they’ve even given up hope of retaining the coveted district attorney’s office that they’ve occupied for the past many years. They will apparently be running somebody or another for the fourth district congressional seat, but even our most die-hard Democratic friends can’t name any of the candidates and won’t even pretend that they’ll do any better than 30 percent or so in the general election.

There’s a lot going on in those Republican races, though. The primary is shaping up as an epic showdown in the longstanding internecine war between the moderates and the conservatives, with the future of the party and the state itself clearly at stake.

Although this is a notoriously Republican state, and has been ever since the abolitionist Republicans routed the pro-slavery Democrats back in the Bleeding Kansas days before the Civil War, the state’s government has never been nearly so conservative as its reputation would suggest. That’s partly because the state constitution hands a disproportionate share of power to a judiciary chosen by the lawyer class, and for some reason people always turn more liberal when they put on a black robe, but it’s mainly because the Republican party has long been dominated by the so-called “moderate” faction.

At least they used to be so called. This year they’ve taken to calling themselves “traditional” Republicans, much as the left re-branded itself “progressive” after “liberal” became a pejorative. Just as the left figured that no one is likely to be offended by progress, the moderates have calculated that tradition will have a greater appeal to the average Kansan than moderation.

In recent years the difference between a moderate Republican and a conservative one was defined in Kansas by the social issues, with the former taking a far more permissive stand than the latter on abortion and the currently respectable vices, but this year the most important distinction is about economics. The moderates are fond of an economic development policy heavy on tax abatements, subsidies, public-private partnerships, and similar crony capitalist schemes, while the conservatives want to cut taxes for everybody, eliminate any regulation that isn’t absolutely necessary, slash the state budget down to the barest essentials, and let the marketplace rather than the regulatory agencies pick the winners and losers. The conservatives have also stressed a promise to do anything in the state’s power to thwart implementation of Obamacare, but the issue has proved so overwhelmingly popular that even the most moderate of the moderates are now claiming to have been opposed to the bill all along.

Those Republicans that launched their political careers as anti-abortion crusaders continue to tout their pro-life credentials, but most of the advertisements that have been running non-stop on talk radio and filling up Republican mailboxes have focused on the economic debate. The conservatives accuse their rivals of being little better than Democrats, a most damning slur ‘round here, while the moderates have sought to portray their opponents of wanting to do nothing at all, as if that were a bad thing.

We think the conservatives have the stronger argument, and should go a long way to reforming the state’s Republican party in their image. We attribute the moderates’ long domination of the state in large part to the fact that somebody who wants to do things with government is more likely to run for office than someone who wants to stop it from doing things, but this year the need for governmental restraint is so dire that the conservatives have been able to run a fairly strong if somewhat inexperienced and unpolished slate of candidates.

Another reason for the moderates’ strength has been all the Kansans who would be Democrats in any other state but vote in the Republican primaries here so as not to waste their votes. This year the number of party-switchers will be especially high, given the utter pointlessness of the Democrat primary, but they will likely still be outnumbered by the bona fide Republicans who are tired of the seeing the state fall further behind in job creation despite all the best efforts of the eco-devo devotees.

Similar uprisings are occurring within the Republican parties of other states, and have already knocked out some entrenched incumbents who became too comfortable with the ever-expansive politics as usual. The newly energized conservatives should eventually exert their influence from the bottom all the way to top of the ticket Republican, and could even prove a decisive factor in helping the reputedly moderate candidate that wound up with the party’s presidential nomination. The Democrats will be peddling the same old Roosevelt-era tax-and-borrow-and-spend policies while complaining that the Republicans are peddling the same old borrow-and-spend policies, but it should be apparent eventually that this isn’t the same old Grand Old Party of the long-ago Bush days.

— Bud Norman

Right is Rare

The good folks at the Rasmussen polling firm have found that a third of Republican voters would like to see another candidate enter the race for their party’s presidential nomination. The number seems low, given the highly publicized flaws in
the current field, but it’s hard to think of the candidate they’re hoping for.

The disgruntled third are likely conservatives who believe that each of the remaining candidates has too often deviated from conservative orthodoxy, and they do have a point. Despite its reputation as a bastion of right-wing extremism, however, the Republican party doesn’t seem to have any true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool, bred-in-the-bones, any-cliché-you-can-think-of conservatives on hand.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachman, and former pizza magnate Herman Cain were all arguably more conservative than the surviving contenders, but each had their own insufficiently right-wing stands and all were knocked out of contention for other reasons. Some still pine for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has shown admirable grit in cutting a bloated government down to size, but he has a decidedly northeastern attitude toward guns and other issues dear to conservative hearts. Others are calling for Mitch Daniels, who has done some conservative things as Governor of Indiana, but was budget director for deficit-prone George W. Bush and has toyed with such decidedly un-conservative ideas as a value added tax. Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan and Florida Senator Marco Rubio are both impeccably conservative, but both have declared themselves too young and inexperienced to seek the presidency.

All of which raises the question of why there are no sufficiently conservative candidates with the necessary qualifications to run for president. Conservatism has a long and distinguished history in the country, as many as 40 percent of Americans consider themselves conservative, and there are prominent and respected conservatives in nearly every field, yet when it comes time to pick a president the right is usually reduced to find the least objectionable choice. This has long been true, too, with only a precious few presidents meeting the conservative stand in the past century or so.

One reason, of course, is that most conservatives are reluctant to enter politics in the first place. They’re unashamed to make a good living in the private sector, confident they can do good for their country as private citizens, and by definition believe that government isn’t the solution to every problem. Conservatism holds that the government is more likely to screw things up, and few people will enter the rough game of politics with the modest hope of limiting the damage done.

Those who do enter the political arena, and manage to win office on the platform of not screwing things up, quickly find themselves being pulled to the left. Most voters, even the ones who describe themselves as conservatives, want their states and districts to get a share of the goodies government hands out. Everyone enjoys good press, and compromising conservatives principles are always the best way to get it. Invitations to the swankest Georgetown parties are nice, too, and they also require a certain amount of liberalism.

The few genuinely conservative presidents have usually taken office after the country had become exasperated with the failures of liberalism, as with Harding after Wilson or Reagan after Carter, and this year could have provided another opportunity. Harding and Reagan were extraordinary historical accidents, though, and another one doesn’t seem to be on hand at the moment. The country will have to muddle through with a sort-of-conservative, and take hope in the knowledge that Ryan and Rubio are growing older and more seasoned by the day.

— Bud Norman