For more than two years, GOP lawmakers have sought — and failed — to find a scandal to take down the presidency of Barack Obama.
It’s not been for lack of trying.
There was Solyndra, an expensive, failed effort to underwrite a firm promising solar energy development; the “fast and furious” affair, in which most federal misdeeds in a bungled gun-running sting operation took place several thousand miles from — and several levels below — the department’s top command; and, more recently, Benghazi, the mishandling of events before, during and after the terrorists’ murder of the U.S. ambassador and three others in newly liberated but still unstable Libya.
Each probe revealed examples of poor judgment and misinformation by Obama administration officials. But most of what probers found seemed too obscure or complicated to attract the attention of Americans, who generally are far more interested in their economic well-being.
On the surface, the disclosure that the Internal Revenue Service targeted tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny shows much more promise. Everyone deals with the IRS, and many already have a negative view. Indeed, it’s been a favorite Republican target for years, whether that be because the GOP believes the agency focuses too much enforcement effort on small taxpayers or is simply the exemplar of a tax code far too complex for most Americans to understand or benefit from.
Three congressional committees are looking into the mess, and each day the White House seems to revise its explanation of who knew what when.
But the disclosures have done nothing yet to dent Obama’s public standing. A CNN poll showed Sunday that his job approval had improved slightly, to a comfortable 53 percent. While roughly the same proportion thought congressional Republicans were reacting appropriately to the various controversies, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Americans thought GOP lawmakers were focusing far less on issues of concern to them than either Obama or congressional Democrats.
The polls did show Americans thought the IRS targeting deliberate, but 55 percent in the CNN poll blamed IRS officials, rather than the Obama White House.
Still, many GOP lawmakers, perhaps recalling how their Republican political forebears did business in the Nixon years, contend the targeting could never have occurred without the active direction of Democratic higher-ups, rather than resulting from tax law complexity or the political naivete of lower-level officials.
For the record, a few similar Democratic groups were targeted. But IRS officials concentrated on the tea party ones, perhaps because there were so many.
Meanwhile, conservative columnists Kimberly Strassel and Peggy Noonan contend Obama himself inspired the scrutiny because he questioned publicly the legality of the millions some GOP groups were spending on ads against him and other Democrats.
Going one step further, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said on CNN, without providing any evidence, that he believes “we’re going to find there’s a written policy that says that, ’We were targeting people who were opposed to the president.’”
So far, those contentions seem far-fetched, though a lot remains unknown, and the IRS scandal could yet take several routes. Lawmakers could find some direct connection between top Obama officials and the agency’s actions. Or the evidence could confirm this was the work of lower level employees, acting without guidance.
Even then, this mess could create problems for one of the administration’s most important initiatives, the Affordable Care Act. Under the law, financial assistance to enable uninsured Americans to afford coverage will be transmitted through the tax system. The IRS will enforce penalties on individuals and employers who fail to comply with the law’s requirements.
And the IRS official in charge of implementing the law formerly ran the office that did the targeting. So if critics can succeed in denigrating her work, they might make it harder for her to administer a health law that already faces administrative difficulties and Republican obstruction.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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