Republican math: IRS > Benghazi

May 14, 2013

Talk to any Republican political strategist about whether GOP leaders should spend their time talking about the terrorist attack in Benghazi or the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservatives and you will get a unanimous answer: IRS.


The IRS building. Bloomberg photo.

Here's why.

1. The IRS is ubiquitous. Everyone (or at least most of us) pay taxes. The IRS is a known (and not all that well liked) entity in the American psyche.  Benghazi is, well, not. (Over/under on the percentage of Americans who could find Libya on a map? 15%? Too high?) It's far easier to build on an existing narrative in peoples' (especially Republicans) minds than build one from scratch.

2. The IRS story is simple.  We tend to believe -- based on heaping amounts of evidence -- that stories which can be explained in a sentence or two are more impactful than those that take 20 paragraphs to explain.  Here's the IRS story: A government agency singled out conservative organizations for additional scrutiny for no reason other than their names and stated goals. Try explaining Benghazi -- to the average person who is not following every development like us news junkies -- in a single sentence. Not possible.

3. Domestic > Foreign.  Americans tend to care most about, well, America.  And so, in our politics, domestic issues (health care, taxes, economy, education) also trump matters of foreign affairs except in rare instances in which American troops are committed overseas or, in the case of Sept. 11, 2001, we are struck by an act or terror. The IRS story is simply more germane to more peoples' lives (see #1 above) than Benghazi. And, the public tends to pay more attention to things that directly affect them.

4. Beyond partisanship. As evidenced by President Obama's harsh words for his Republican critics on Benghazi on Monday, the debate over who knew what when in Libya that day last fall has become totally seized by partisan politics. Not so the IRS story. Yes, it is a GREAT -- hard to exaggerate just how great -- issue for GOP politicians trying to show their conservative bona fides to the party base. But, it's also an issue where political divisions aren't readily apparent (at least not yet). Plenty of Democratic Senators came out on Monday to speak out against the actions taken by the IRS and our guess is there will be lots of Democrats calling for heads to roll at the agency in the coming days and weeks.  By calling for further scrutiny into what happened at the IRS then, Republicans can make their base wildly happy while also trying to seize back the accountability/transparency/competency message from President Obama.

Washington IRS officials involved in singling out of conservative groups: It wasn't just IRS employees in Cincinnati who took part in the effort to apply extra scrutiny to conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Zachary A. Goldfarb report. What's more, then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman and the agency’s current acting commissioner, Steven T. Miller learned about what was happening in the Cincinnati office in May 2012. The new revelations are sure to inflame outrage from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who plan to hold hearings beginning this week.

Justice Department secretly obtains AP phone records: As part of an investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot, the Justice Department secretly obtained phone records of Associated Press journalists, The Post's Sari Horowitz reports. Look for this story to become part of the political debate in Washington in the coming days, with Republicans already condemning the incident as part of a larger pattern of overreach by the Obama administration.

Fixbits:

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's PAC is defending Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) with a six-figure ad buy defending her position on guns.

Rubio also unveiled a bill to force the IRS to fire any employee found "willfully” violating “the constitutional rights of a taxpayer."

The onetime director of the RNC's Hispanic outreach effort in Florida has become a Democrat. In his note to friends, Pablo Pantoja mentioned the controversial co-author of a Heritage Foundation study on the cost of immigration reform that was roundly criticized by conservatives.

Tea Party groups are threatening to sue the IRS.

Obama told Democratic donors his agenda has been stalled by "hyper-partisanship" in Washington.

As expected, the Minnesota Senate approved a bill legalizing gay marriage. Gov. Mark Dayton (D) will sign it Tuesday afternoon.

Anthony Weiner has begun staffing up for a possible New York City mayoral bid.

The founder of EMILY's List endorsed a super PAC trying to draft Hillary Clinton to run for president in 2016.

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) won't challenge Sen. Al Franken (D) .

Must-reads:

"The Panopticon President" -- Ben Smith, Buzzfeed

"IRS official Lois Lerner becomes face of scandal over targeting of conservative groups" -- David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post

"A frustrated Obama in reaction mode as IRS actions, Benghazi undermine his agenda" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | May 13, 2013