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Asking the Wrong Questions About the IRS

For anyone wondering what liberal elites really think about the IRS scandal, the front page of today’s New York Times gave us the answer. After burying the story inside over the weekend, the headline on the front page screamed the fears of the media establishment: “IRS Focus on Conservatives Gives GOP an Issue to Seize On.” The story gives the latest updates on the controversy in which conservative groups were targeted for scrutiny, including the troubling time line about knowledge of the abuses by top leaders of the IRS which gives the lie to their assurances to Congress in 2012 that no such abuses were going on. It also points out that the special treatment was not limited to organizations with the words “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names but extended to those who didn’t like the way the country was being run.

Virtually no one is defending the IRS this morning, but most mainstream commentary on it is stressing that to date there has been no link established between the White House or top Obama administration figures and this scandal. That is true, but as angry as citizens should be about what the tax agency has done, few are asking the crucial questions about it: why did it happen? How is it possible that what amounts to a political purge of conservatives from the roll of tax-exempt organizations was undertaken by what we are told was only a bunch of low-level civil servants in an office in Cincinnati? Can anyone truly believe that a decision to target conservatives and those who were unhappy with a government led by a liberal Democrat was simply a spontaneous event with no political guidance or input?

As I noted yesterday, the damning nature of these investigations has put liberals in a position where they have been forced to join conservative condemnations of the IRS, though it is interesting to note that one exception to that rule is the Times editorial page, which curiously has yet to respond to the scandal in the three days since it broke. No doubt their editorial board, which endorsed a regime of politicized IRS scrutiny against Tea Partiers in March 2012, is pondering how to square their past stand with what even liberal ideologues understand is the need to distance themselves from an embarrassing mistake by the government.

The key to the scandal is to be found in that dilemma. As today’s Times news story points out:

The I.R.S. has been under pressure from Democrats and campaign finance watchdogs for some time to crack down on abuse of the 501(c)4 tax exemption, which is supposed to go to organizations primarily promoting “social welfare” but which is routinely granted to overt political advocacy groups with little or no social welfare work.

It is true that there may be some who seek tax-exempt status that didn’t deserve it. But the notion that this species of organization is to be found only on the right rather than across the spectrum is an idea that was nurtured by liberal elites. The IRS policy was rooted in a belief that such conservatives are beyond the pale of acceptable opinion and that there was something illegitimate about disagreement with President Obama’s policies or distrust of government. The president articulated this point of view last week only days before the government gave us even more reason to worry about his program to expand its power.

What must follow is a thorough investigation of these abuses. We already know that the chief liberal media organ in the country was urging the IRS to behave in this manner. We also need to learn whether, despite denials, someone within the administration whispered in the ears of IRS personnel about this topic.

In the meantime, the left would be foolish to think President Obama can survive this scandal unscathed by their attempt to frame this story, as the Times did this morning, as just a tool for Republicans to attack the administration.


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