President Obama waited 3 days to address the IRS scandal. Why?

May 13, 2013

On Monday, President Obama called the singling out of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service "outrageous", adding: "I have no patience with it. I will not tolerate it."


President Obama take questions from reporters on Monday. AP photo.

Obama's strong condemnation of the growing scandal came amid similar denunciations from Democratic elected officials.  Montana Sen. Max Baucus called it an "outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public’s trust." West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin described the IRS' actions as "unacceptable and un-American." You get the idea.

The question being asked in the political world today is whether the condemnations are too little, too late. As in, did the Obama Administration -- and other Democrats in the House and Senate -- miss their chance to claim some sort of high(ish) message ground by largely taking a pass on the story when it broke on Friday morning?

Let's revisit how the White House handled the story.

First, press secretary Jay Carney was asked about the story at a press briefing later on Friday. "If this activity took place, it is inappropriate," Carney said while repeatedly emphasizing that the IRS is "an independent enforcement agency" that has only two political appointees.

Then, on Saturday, Carney issued another, slightly more expansive statement. "The President believes that the American people expect and deserve to have the very best public servants with the highest levels of integrity working in government agencies on their behalf," it read in part. "Based on recent media reports, he is concerned that the conduct of a small number of Internal Revenue Service employees may have fallen short of that standard."

Then, silence. Democrats largely avoided saying or doing anything over the weekend -- even as the story grew worse for the IRS and people like Maine Sen. Susan Collins, not exactly a partisan bomb-thrower, called the episode "absolutely chilling" on Sunday.

We asked around Democratic circles this morning in search of some insight as to the strategy behind most elected Democrats staying (largely) silent while Republicans leapt on the issue like Jamie Lannister jumping into a bear pit.

The White House side of things goes something like this: Carney's main focus in the Friday presser was on the questions raised about the edits made to talking points issued in the wake of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya.  Getting that right was of critical importance and deviating at all from the plan to fully engage on that issue could have had a set of bad political consequences all its own.  The White House also knew that Obama had today's press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron already on the schedule, an event that would give him/them a chance to adress the IRS issue head on. And, as Obama himself said today, he only learned of the IRS allegations Friday so offering a blanket condemnation might have been tough in such a short time window.

(There is an argument to be made for a sort of rhetorical middle ground, of course.  The White House could have offered a sort its distaste with the allegations -- much like Obama did today -- over the weekend while also saying that an investigation into the details was ongoing.)

Democratic Congressional strategists offered little in the way of explanation for the relative silence of their incumbents/candidates on the IRS over the weekend other than to say that Senators and House Members typically take their cues from the White House in sticky political situations like this one.

Timing is, of course, many things (if not everything) in politics. The White House was dealing with a full-frontal assault on Benghazi when the IRS story broke.  Democrats in Congress were wary about getting out in front of a White House that initially played up the "independent" nature of the IRS. All of which makes sense.

And, all of which allowed Republicans to fill the rhetorical vacuum -- Sen. Mitch McConnell called for a government-wide investigation, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) said that hearings would be held -- on an issue that plays into their hands as it is.

Democrats will have to play catch up on the IRS scandal in the coming week. Of course, if the offending parties within the IRS are let go some time soon that could go a long way to mitigating the Democrats' messaging problem on the issue.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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