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June 07, 2013 4:22 PM The IRS and the Henry II Theory of Presidential Responsibility

By Ed Kilgore

Republicans obviously still hope the investigation of the IRS’ scrutiny of 501(c)(4) applicants produce evidence of high-level direct encouragement, preferably from within the White House itself. But they are beginning to develop a sort of Plan B, which doesn’t depend on evidence of any direct action whatsoever. It’s abundantly on display in today’s Wall Street Journal, beginning with a piece by Kimberly Strassel, whose “timeline” of the IRS “scandal” focuses on the president’s bad-mouthing of the huge political organizations unleashed by Citizens United:

Perhaps the only useful part of the inspector general’s audit of the IRS was its timeline. We know that it was August 2010 when the IRS issued its first “Be On the Lookout” list, flagging applications containing key conservative words and issues. The criteria would expand in the months to come.
What else was happening in the summer and fall of 2010? The Obama administration and its allies continue to suggest the IRS was working in some political vacuum. What they’d rather everyone forget is that the IRS’s first BOLO list coincided with their own attack against “shadowy” or “front” conservative groups that they claimed were rigging the electoral system.

Strasser then painstakingly goes through every example she can find during 2010 of anyone on Obama’s side of the political barricades, including but not limited to POTUS, talking smack about the Karl Rove and Koch Brothers entities that were pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into efforts to hogtie the Obama administration and its policies via a Republican midterm landslide. And here’s her triumphant conclusion:

Yet we are to believe that a few rogue IRS employees just happened during that time to begin systematically targeting conservative groups? A mere coincidence that among the things the IRS demanded of these groups were “copies of any contracts with and training materials provided by Americans for Prosperity”?
This newspaper reported Thursday that Cincinnati IRS employees are now telling investigators that they took their orders from Washington. For anyone with a memory of 2010 politics, that was obvious from the start.

Interesting. Most of you are probably familiar with Brendan Nyhan’s immensely useful “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency”, his term (adapted from Matt Ygesias’ mockery of conservatives who consider will-power the only limitation on U.S. global influence) for the thinking of those who blame any policy or political setback for Obama to the president’s lack of the Will To Power. If Obama just wanted to, say many unhappy liberals and let’s-blame-the-victim MSM commentators, he could move mountains (you know, like LBJ).

Strasser is promoting what might be called the “Henry II Theory of Presidential Responsibility,” alluding to that monarch’s legendary responsibility for the murder of St. Thomas Becket by knights who heard him say: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

I’d like to say I came up with this metaphor first, but no: Erick Erickson of RedState did so last month, and he was deadly serious about suggesting it not only explained Obama’s behavior but made him responsible for the IRS misconduct. He didn’t pause to reflect that there is a bit of a gap in the consequences for Henry II and Obama’s victims, a violent death being a tad more serious than having your application for a tax subsidy stonewalled. But the marvel of the theory is that it made any direct involvement by Obama unnecessary to his indictment.

And mirabile dictu, another WSJ columnist today made the big leap to suggest that even if he had no direct involvement, Obama’s behavior in this case is worse than that of Richard Nixon, who famously ordered his subordinates to use the IRS to “screw” those on his “enemies list.” Why? Because, says Peggy Noonan, the IRS ignored Nixon’s directives. So: no harm, no foul, though again, Noonan fails, like most of the “IRS scandal” propagators, to (a) talk in any detail about the actual consequences of IRS targeting in the current case, or (b) mention that the IRS entirely left alone the actual organizations Obama and his minions were talking about. I guess the analogy would be Henry II’s knights responding to his plea to be rid of Becket by vandalizing the nearest church.

More broadly, of course, the idea that presidents can’t criticize their political opponents because someone in the bureaucracy might get the wrong idea is ludicrous from any legal or common-sense point of view. The obvious thing to do is to deal directly with anyone who actually broke the law, make it clear to the IRS in particular and to executive-branch personnel generally that they should treat all citizens as equally as is possible,and then fix the insanely vague and quasi-corrupt 501)(c)(4) exemption that drew a vast number of organizations in 2010 into an outlaw legal category where they could run political ads without paying taxes on their income or disclosing donors.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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