The Obama IRS scandal retreats to the fever swamps

Mitch McConnell, in a speech today to the American Enterprise Institute, castigated the Obama administration for failing to disprove the claim that the White House coordinated the IRS targeting of conservative groups:

“Now we have an administration that’s desperately trying to prove that nobody at the top was involved in any of this stuff, even as they hope that the media loses interest in this scandal and moves on.”

As Jonathan Chait notes, this is effectively an acknowledgment by McConnell that the IRS scandal has officially moved into its “post fact” phase:

McConnell’s speech is an attempt to reframe the issue in a way that it can survive the utter absence of incriminating facts. One method he employs is to flip around the burden of proof…Before Republicans were going to prove that Obama’s administration was involved. All of the evidence suggests it wasn’t. So now McConnell is framing the question as Obama trying to prove he wasn’t involved.

Chait adds that this is a “kind of covered retreat, signaling the IRS scandal’s turn into a vague trope that conservatives use with other members of the tribe…to signal some dark beliefs they don’t need to back up.”

Indeed, elsewhere in the speech, McConnell actually makes this explicit, openly admitting that this scandal, at least as it reflects on Obama, is no longer about the specific behavior — scandalous or not — of living, breathing human beings, and more about something that’s been vaguely institutionalized throughout the administration. He says that here:

“As serious as the IRS scandal is, what we’re dealing with here is larger than the actions of one agency or any group of employees. This administration has institutionalized the practice of pitting bureaucrats against the very people they’re supposed to be serving, and it needs to stop.”

And here:

“I don’t believe that the president ever actually picked up a phone and told someone over at the IRS to slow-walk those applications or audit anybody. But the truth is, he didn’t have to. The message was clear enough.”

The thing is that at the outset of this scandal, there was a method to this kind of talk. Back when scandal-palooza was just getting started, GOP Rep. Mike Rogers — one of scandal-palooza’s ringleaders — made a very similar claim to that of McConnell, albeit in more subtle terms. He argued: “the trouble here isn’t even the individual specific scandals, it’s this broader notion that there’s a pattern of this activity.”

The idea then was to create an atmosphere of scandal, in hopes of getting the press to place each and every new fact about the unfolding stories into that framework, with no sense of balance or perspective about how significant each new piece of information really was. That worked for a time, but GOP scandal overreach really did produce a media backlash of sorts, with the press doing a good job of picking apart the various stories and separating the scandal wheat from the chaff. (Those who remember the 1990s should be heartened by what we’ve seen. So far, at least.)

Darrell Issa’s selective release of transcripts, followed by the release by Dems on Issa’s Oversight Committee of full witness testimony that undercut Issa’s claims, seems to have further soured the media on GOP narratives hyping Nixonian presidential wrongdoing. Partly because of Issa’s game-playing — and partly because the very serious concerns raised by the NSA revelations intervened — the political press corps really does seem to have decided that Republican investigators have come up with nothing to tie the IRS targeting to the White House and that those initial leaks were little more than an effort to play them.

For now, at least, the media seems to have moved on. And so Mitch McConnell can now drop all pretenses and speak directly to the base in language only they can understand.

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