The politics of the IRS scandal

For me, the IRS scandal, though certainly a big deal, currently ranks behind two bigger deal stories — immigration reform and Benghazi. I view the Schumer-Rubio bill as a long-term political game-changer and, indeed, nation-changer. And Benghazigate implicates the president, high ranking administration officials, and the president’s likely successor as standard bearer of the Democratic Party. By contrast, we do not know that the president had anything to with the IRS’s misdeeds.

Yet, it seemed immediately apparent to me that the IRS story overwhelms the other two in terms of the potential danger posed to the administration. Why? Because any American can easily understand the unfairness and fearsomeness of using the taxing power for partisan political purposes.

But my confidence in these sorts of political assessments isn’t sky high these days. Thus, I was happy to read that Nate Silver also sees political resonance in the IRS scandal. He assesses the likely political fall-out from a scandal by asking the following five sensible questions:

1. Can the potential scandal be described with one sentence, but not easily refuted with one sentence?

2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?

3. Does the scandal reinforce a core negative perception about the candidate?

4. Can the scandal be employed readily by the opposition without their looking hypocritical, risking retribution or giving life to a damaging counter-claim?

5. Is the potential scandal occurring amid an otherwise slow news cycle?

The long-and-short of Silver’s analysis of these questions is that “the I.R.S. story scores relatively high, meaning it could have a substantial political impact.”

As to the first question, “simplicity seems to be on the Republicans’ side in the I.R.S. case in a way it hasn’t been on Benghazi.” As to the second, “the I.R.S. story has the potential to affect perceptions of the executive branch, the Democratic Party and the United States government as a whole, and Mr. Obama.” Similarly, as to the third, “when it comes to the grievances of Tea Party voters in particular, the I.R.S.’s actions could hardly be more substantively or symbolically resonant.”

Fourth, Republicans face little risk of a backlash when they press the administration on the IRS’s conduct. It will be difficult to portray concern about IRS abuses as a partisan squabble. President Obama and other Democrats sense this, as is clear from their initial public reaction.

Finally, does the IRS scandal arise in a slow news cycle? I would say no, given Benghazihate. But Silver argues that this puts Republicans in something of a no-lose position:

The news media could portray the Benghazi and I.R.S. stories as “joint scandals,” meaning that both would get plenty of coverage at the expense of other issues like immigration reform. Or, the news media could focus on the I.R.S. case instead of Benghazi — but for the reasons I’ve outlined here, the I.R.S. story probably entails much more political downside for Democrats.

I still think that Obamacare and the state of the economy will be the two most important issues, among those on the current horizon, in 2014. But I agree with Silver that the IRS may well prove to be a burden for Democrats, and a drag on President Obama’s popularity.

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