Why the IRS scandal could be Marco Rubio’s most important moment

When the Internal Revenue Service scandal erupted exactly one week ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) released a statement calling the agency's behavior "reprehensible" and "deplorable."

That was only the appetizer.

In the days since the IRS admitted to targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny, Rubio's criticism of the Obama administration and warnings about the larger implications of the incident have only intensified, suggesting the potential presidential contender wants badly to lead his party into battle on an issue that threatens to damage President Obama more than any other public embarrassment he's currently facing.


(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Monday, Rubio unveiled a bill to mandate termination of any IRS employee found “willfully” violating “the constitutional rights of a taxpayer." By Wednesday, he had taken to the Senate floor to lambaste Obama's "culture of intimidation" and remind his colleagues about the embattled agency's role in enforcing Obama's health care law. On Thursday, Rubio took his message to Fox News Channel and MSNBC, characterizing the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner (which Obama demanded) as an inadequate remedy for a bad situation.

"I think the resignation is appropriate. I called for that on Monday, but it is just the beginning. It’s not nearly enough," Rubio told Chuck Todd.

Politics aside, Rubio's allies insist this is an issue he cares deeply about. But as we often note in this space, it's difficult -- if not impossible -- to completely separate political calculation from the actions of elected officials. And from a political perspective, Rubio demonstrated some savvy.

The White House is under a cloud of scrutiny over three major issues right now: Benghazi, the IRS scandal, and the Justice Department's decision to secretly obtain the phone records of Associated Press journalists. The consensus among GOP strategists is that the party should focus its energy on the IRS, which suggests Rubio is right where he should be.

"I think it is very wise to pound the IRS issue, particularly as opposed to Benghazi," said Tim Baker, a Florida-based Republican strategist. "Benghazi is a story about government incompetence and maybe lying in a political campaign, but not something that feels personal and easily understood to most people."

Railing against the IRS and expounding upon the perils of government venturing where it shouldn't is also a way for Rubio to reconnect with the conservative base, with whom his relationship has been strained a bit by his push for comprehensive immigration reform.

"There is no doubt that his leadership on the immigration bill is hurting him politically with the Republican base, conservatives and the tea party in particular, so this is a very smart and heartfelt move to step out," said Greg Mueller, a conservative strategist. "While it may be good politics for him, I think he would be out in front of this issue whether he was in the middle of the immigration controversy or not."

If Rubio is going to run for president, he'll need to demonstrate an ability to lead on critical issues of the day, something he appears to be doing with the IRS fallout. He already has competition in the department of holding the administration's feet to the fire from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a potential 2016 foe. Paul's drone filibuster -- which Rubio joined -- won him wide plaudits on the right. And the Kentuckian's sharp criticism of Hillary Clinton in the Benghazi investigation has made him one of the toughest critics of the Obama administration on that front. The extent to which Rubio has immersed himself in the IRS story has given him an issue to own.

This much is clear: The IRS story isn't going away any time soon. And neither is Rubio, if his actions so far are any guide.

Fixbits:

The FBI is looking into whether somebody set out to smear Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Meet Daniel Werfel, the new acting commissioner of he IRS.

The IRS official who was in charge of tax-exempt organizations when the unit targeted conservative groups now heads the agency office responsible for health care legislation.

A bipartisan House group has reached an immigration deal "in principle."

Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Jim Matheson (Utah) joined Republicans in voting to repeal Obamacare on Thursday.

After the vote, House Democrats' campaign arm launched online ads against Republican Reps. Chris Gibson (N.Y.), Michael Grimm (N.Y.), Joe Heck (Nev.), Frank LoBiondo (D-N.J.), Gary Miller (Calif.), Steve Pearce (N.M.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Jon Runyan (N.J.), David Valadao (Calif.), and Bill Young (Fla.).

Republican Senate nominee Gabriel Gomez is going on the air in Massachusetts with a positive spot.

Obama appointed former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to serve on the board that awards Fulbright Scholarships.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's office asked Politico to take down a video of his chief of staff that was featured on the news outlet's advertising Web page.

Former congressman Allen West has been hired by Fox News as a contributor.

Must-reads:

"Lawmakers to focus on whether IRS misled Congress on screening practices" -- Zachary A. Goldfarb, Washington Post

"G.O.P., Energized, Weighs How Far to Take Inquiries" -- Jonathan Weisman, New York Times

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · May 16, 2013