The scandal sweepstakes has begun, with pundits on the left and right taking chances on predicting which of the ongoing controversies bedeviling the White House—IRS, Benghazi, AP phone records—will be the one with resonance, the ability to affect upcoming elections, unrelated policy debates, or even the future of this administration.
These discussions have often ranked the scandals in order of importance to “the people,” with the IRS transgressions usually at the top of the list. I have to agree that this incident probably does make the common folk shudder. The power to tax is the power to destroy, said some sage years ago (Daniel Webster? Chief Justice John Marshall?), and even if you weren’t aware of that axiom, you know in your gut that any day you get a call from the IRS asking for more information isn’t a happy day. (Is there any local television market that doesn’t run ads from lawyers offering to help IRS-besieged clients beat the behemoth?)
So, Mr. Plebeian might not belong to a Tea Party group, might not even care that much for those rabble-rousers, in fact, but he does open his eyes and nod his head in sympathy when he hears stories of the Tax Man’s bell tolling. He knows at some point, it could toll for him.
The left has a laughable response to this scandal that can be summed up in two words: Citizens United. Yes, that evil anti-government Supreme Court ruling protecting free speech that allowed corporations to run unfettered in the fields of political campaign spending. Citizens United spurred the growth of these tax-exempt groups, see, and the IRS was just doing its job trying to weed out the bad ones that really shouldn’t be tax exempt, because they don’t really engage in activities to benefit the social welfare, from the good ones that do. You know, good groups like the relentlessly anti-conservative Media Matters. And any group with “progressive” in its name, or maybe groups related to the president himself. Those benefit the “social welfare.” Groups that encourage reading the Constitution or maybe educating people about the perils of big government—not so good, according to IRS agents.
To my mind, the IRS scandal is potentially bigger still. The obstruction of tax-exempt status for conservative groups is one part of it. Another is whether the IRS targeted conservatives who supported, either with money or speech, opponents of the president. More and more people are coming forward to suggest they found it curious that after publicly opposing the president in some way, they were on the receiving end of an IRS audit call. And there is even a question of whether confidential tax information from the president’s ideological adversaries was known and used by White House operatives.
And therein lies the theme that ties all these scandals together: you shouldn’t be able to use government power to stay in power.
So, it doesn’t matter if the Benghazi scandal is complicated, if the AP scandal only involved the press, or even if, in some Bizarro World version of reality, the netroots crowd is actually right to blame the IRS misdoings on Citizens United .
Regardless of details, victims or root causes, these scandals all share one huge and easy-to-understand question: Did the Obama administration use government power in any or all of these cases to enhance its chances of staying in power?
To break it down further:
- Were the Benghazi talking points altered to make the president look better on foreign affairs two months before the election?
- Was a stand-down order given to potential rescuers of Benghazi victims because of fear of political implications and not military tactical challenges?
- Were Associated Press records used in any way to identify potential anti-Obama leakers?
- And, finally, was the IRS’s tremendous reach used to intimidate the president’s ideological and political adversaries?
We already know the answer to the last question—an unequivocal yes. Government power was used to help obstruct those who wished to change who was in power. How far up these actions went hasn’t been determined.
And the other questions have yet to be fully answered. But that is how these incidents need to be framed: Did the president or any of his supporters use government power in order to stay in power?
It’s as simple and clear as that.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, After the War, is available on Kindle and soon will be available in print.