Commentary Magazine


Note to President Obama: IRS Scandal Is Why We Distrust Government

While almost all liberals and Democrats are still in denial about the implications of the Benghazi scandal, none of them is choosing to defend the IRS officials who targeted Tea Party groups for investigations that would deny them tax-exempt status. Like the White House, the chattering classes are united in decrying the blatantly illegal actions by what we are told were just low-level IRS employees. But the universal condemnation of these acts doesn’t mean that this administration can shrug this story off as easily as that. The IRS investigations aren’t merely a chilling abuse of power. They go straight to the heart of conservative distrust of Barack Obama’s worldview.

Seven days ago, President Obama went to the Ohio State University to give a commencement address during which he heaped scorn on those who oppose his efforts to expand the power of government:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

But the problem here is not just that a branch of that government has been caught using their almost unlimited power to harass political opponents of the president. It is, as Ross Douthat points out today in the New York Times, that the president and his cheerleaders in the press have spent the last three years demonizing those targeted by the IRS. There was, of course, one element to his indictment of this mentality that he left out: That his own newspaper had actually editorialized in favor of this harassment in March of 2012.

As John Podhoretz wrote here on Friday, groups with the words “Tea Party” and “Patriot” aren’t the only ones that have been singled out for suspiciously political investigations during the last four years. COMMENTARY magazine was given the business in this manner in 2009, and who knows how many others may have gotten the same treatment?

While the orders to the IRS might not be able to be traced directly back to the president, there’s no doubt the officials that took these steps were acting in the spirit of the president’s efforts to treat those who are his critics as being out of the American mainstream.

As I wrote on Monday:

The fear of tyranny Obama cited isn’t an invention of the Koch brothers or the Tea Party, it can be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and most of the founders. They worried that our “experiment in self-rule” would fail specifically because of over-reaching on the part of the government or a blind obedience to the vagaries of public opinion. Our Constitution was written by men who understood that the key principle of American democracy must be a system of checks and balances that was designed to frustrate people like Obama who want to shove their big ideas about re-engineering our society and government down the throats of the voters. They placed obstacles in the path of such leaders in the form of representative government institutions that are supposed to go slow and invariably give voice to those who are more interested in holding government accountable than in growing it. Supporting this instinct isn’t cynical, nor is it a function of special interests. It is democracy in its purest and most American form.

What I didn’t know on Monday was that the government headed by the president was about to provide us with an egregious example of exactly why Americans should distrust their government. There is a long and dishonorable tradition of using the IRS to target political opponents of the party in power. Such actions were cited in the articles of impeachment of Richard Nixon and it is well known that Franklin Roosevelt played the same game with impunity against those on his own enemy’s list.

But while Nixon and Roosevelt simply went after specific political foes, what we have seen under Obama is an effort to brand all those who question his philosophy as being somehow beyond the pale of decent society. Under those circumstances why wouldn’t government officials and administrators, whom reports now tell us today knew about these abuses as long ago as 2011 and which may go deeper than initially thought, think nothing of putting the screws to those who believe the president has exceeded his powers?

I’ve no doubt that Congress will investigate this scandal with a bipartisan will that so far is lacking on Benghazi. That will probably result in heads rolling at the IRS. But the problem goes far deeper than the misguided unfortunates who listened to the president’s rhetoric and drew the logical conclusions.

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