IRS Scandal: Are Republicans Falling On Their Own Sword?


Today's announcement that IRS official Lois Lerner will be responding to Republican subpoenas by invoking her Fifth Amendment rights have only provided further justification for the GOP's efforts to continue to press for answers. Rep. Darrel Issa's (R-Calif.) House Oversight Committee is completely within its rights to continue to examine why the IRS was targeting conservative groups in an election year, and as facts emerge, they should continue to enhance the political objectives of the Republican party.

There are two major narratives that attempt to explain how such flagrant misuse of government power could occur. The first posits that the IRS was carrying out politically-motivated attacks on Tea Party groups in an attempt to assist President Obama during a tough election year. This theory requires that the President, or at least some of his close advisers, were aware of, and approved of, the use of government resources to target political enemies. Assuming the president had no knowledge of efforts to crack down on conservative non-profits, then the IRS has stepped far outside the realm of its authority and needs to be overhauled. Regardless of which of these narratives ultimately gains traction, Republicans can reasonably expect to further some promising political agenda.

Republicans have been spent more than half the last decade trying to dampen the President's popularity. Despite these efforts, his popularity remains at or around 50%. The present scandal may be able to leave lasting damage in a way that Obamacare, Benghazi, and other issues have not. Many signs suggest this might be the case. Democrats, especially those facing reelection in 2014, are fleeing from the president. Perhaps more worryingly, this scandal seems to cut at the core of the president's reputation. While many Americans have questioned the wisdom of policies like Obamacare, and the judgment that allowed Middle Eastern foreign policy messes, they generally viewed the president as a likable, and generally decent, person. If, however, the president flagrantly abused his power to assist with his reelection, Obama will immediately seem the embodiment of all that is wrong with American politics. Republicans can paint Democrats as hypocrites and expect a good year in 2014.

Interestingly, President Obama may not even be the best target available for Republicans in the aftermath of this scandal. The IRS provides an even more compelling object for conservative ire, not just because of its function, but because of what it symbolizes. The IRS is not only a huge government agency responsible for collecting income taxes, but it even played a role in the demise of the Nixon presidency. Tea Partiers are especially distrustful of the IRS, and the mainstream GOP is eager to provide them with some good news after a year of trying to moderate. Some Republicans are even hoping they can accomplish a multi-generational goal of eliminating the IRS entirely. Republicans are increasingly in the minority on issues like same-sex marriage, but can find a populous winner in attacking the IRS. Republican tax policy resonates with many Americans and bringing the IRS, and taxes, to the forefront can only help the GOP.

Republicans should focus on this scandal as much as possible and seek to capitalize on its political potential.