Lois Lerner didn’t say anything today. Why that’s a bad thing for the Obama Administration.

May 22, 2013

Oh Lois Lerner, you say it best when you say nothing at all.

As expected, Lerner, the head of the Internal Revenue Service's tax-exempt office, pled the Fifth Amendment rather than testify today in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about her role in the targeting of conservative groups.

In her silence -- she technically didn't refuse to testify but rather she invoked her right to not incriminate herself -- Lerner may have done herself some good, legally speaking, but she didn't do any favors for an Obama Administration that is doing all it can to snuff the controversy out.

Here's why.

First of all, Lerner has been, from the get-go, the face of this scandal. But now she is the face AND the voice of it.  After today, the entire country -- or at least those people paying some attention to the news -- will have seen the clip of Lerner saying that she had "not done anything wrong" just before she invoked her right not to answer questions from members of Congress.

We are a people who still consume most of our information via television and if ever there was a made-for-TV moment, this was it. The moment when it was clear Tom Daschle wasn't going to win in 2004? "I'm a DC resident."  The moment you knew John Kerry wasn't getting elected president? "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." You get the idea. We remember what we see on TV -- and you are going to see Lerner's statement (and silence) a lot in the coming days.

Then there is the fact that pleading the Fifth is widely regarded by the public as a sign of guilt -- or at least that you are hiding something.  Lerner, of course, is invoking her Fifth Amendment right in order to protect herself legally but her silence -- and the incredulous reactions of the members of the House Oversight Committee -- suggest that something nefarious is going on. (Here's how Lerner explained herself: "Because I’m asserting my right not to testify I know people will assume I’ve done something wrong. I have not. One of the basic rights of the Fifth Amendment is to protect innocent individuals and that’s the protection I’m invoking today, thank you.")

Regardless of her explanation, it's simply not the image that the Obama Administration wants out there as they try to extricate themselves from a series of public relations errors that suggest, at best, mishandling and, at worst, well, worse.

And, finally, the fact that Lerner decided to plead the Fifth suggests that an "every man (or woman) for themselves" mentality may be taking over for those implicated in the IRS scandal.

That's trouble due to a simple reality: What's good for Lois Lerner is not necessarily good for the broader Obama Administration. What's best, politically speaking, for the White House is to have everyone singing off the same song book: We made mistakes. Those mistakes were the result of haste and bad decision-making. Partisanship didn't enter into it. While that may also be best for Lerner at the moment, it might not always be.

To be clear: None of the above -- what Lerner said/what Lerner didn't say -- changes what we know the facts of the situation to be. But, symbolically speaking, her silence complicates the attempts of the White House to rein in what has been an out-of-control narrative over the past 10 days.

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