May 20, 2013

As I’ve always said, in Washington, being guilty is just a disadvantage; it’s not determinative. Likewise, being innocent is just an advantage; it’s not determinative either.  Well, we’re now one week into the trifecta of scandals plaguing the White House. The weekend news coverage was full of insights on how serious — or not — each of the three scandals might be and how each side — Republicans vs. President Obama and his Democrats — is handling these developing stories so far. From what we’ve seen, it’s obvious that Obama and his White House are trying to urge people to move along, convince them there’s nothing more to see and snuff out these stories before they develop any further.

To understand the narrative the Obama camp would like to develop, one need look no further than Sunday’s New York Times. Its front-page news story, titled “Confusion and Staff Troubles Rife at Cincinnati I.R.S. Office,” is suitable as a source of talking points for the Obama apologencia. The story stated as fact (although it was unattributed) that the specialists at the Cincinnati office “rarely discussed politics” and that the use of specific terms to target applications was no more than a misguided way to “search efficiently through a flood of applications.” This same article stated that the Cincinnati office was just an “outpost that was alienated from the broader IRS culture and given little direction.”

The IRS building in Washington
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The Times describes the IRS agents who targeted certain conservative groups as working alone and simply being “stalled by miscommunication” and “confused about the rules.”

The New York Times opinion pages were obviously more blunt. Charles Blow, an op-ed columnist for the Times, calls Republicans “near-pathological” in their desire to “invalidate the Obama presidency.”  In his Saturday column, Blow dismissed the trifecta as mere “demiscandals.”  To summarize his argument, the scandals currently facing the Obama administration aren’t actually scandals; the perpetrators were just confused and hampered by miscommunication, and the GOP is just desperate to destroy Obama. So it’s the president who is the real victim here. Again, the White House message is, “There’s nothing here except Republican hyperbole. Move along.”

It is easy to see why the administration wants the IRS scandal to be a non-event, but it’s harder to see how the facts will let this debacle evaporate. The hard questioning and scrutiny from Congress and some in the media will continue.

In addition to just the grotesque political targeting that took place, there are a growing number of side stories that reinforce the notion that the Obama machine may have the distinct disadvantage of being totally guilty. My favorite is that Sarah Hall Ingram, the IRS official who was in charge of the tax-exempt division when conservative groups were being targeted, is now the head of the IRS’s Obamacare office. I hope the Obama forces don’t move too quickly to replace her, as it is a political gift that will keep on giving on two fronts: the IRS scandal and the unfolding horror story of the Obamacare rollout. Senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer and other administration officials might try to drive the narrative that Republicans are just “looking to make political hay,” but even Obama might not be able to sweep this one under the rug.

For the foreseeable future, the facts and the handling of those facts will determine where the Obama administration settles among the possible outcomes: charged with acting deceitfully or acting criminally; labeled as purely incompetent; or just hopelessly out of touch and blissfully ignorant. It’s too soon to tell. But eventually we will know whether Team Obama has the disadvantage of being guilty or the advantage of being innocent.