Commentary Magazine


The “Apolitical” Fantasy and the IRS

The ongoing saga of Edward Snowden has at least been moving in the right direction for President Obama. Snowden may once have tried to position himself as a whistleblower, but he has since devolved into ingratiating himself with authoritarian regimes by plying them with American national security secrets. While Pete is correct that the NSA story seems to be hurting voters’ opinion of Obama’s trustworthiness, Americans are by now realizing that they would be foolish to go the other extreme and place that trust in Snowden.

It is also (understandably) distracting the public’s attention from the scandals that preceded it, such as the IRS’s targeting of conservative political groups. And that scandal was a threat to Obama’s popularity as well because the administration’s story kept changing each time it was shown to be false. Americans were tuning in to coverage of the IRS scandal because it just kept getting worse. And the latest testimony released by the House Oversight Committee should make the president thankful to have Snowden’s distraction. The Hill reports:

Holly Paz, formerly a D.C. official dealing with tax-exempt groups, told interviewers from the House Oversight Committee that Cincinnati staffers were “apolitical,” and used the term “Tea Party” as a way to flag groups that might play a role in campaigns.

Paz compared the staffers use of Tea Party as a shorthand for any type of political activity to the way people call tissues by the brand name “Kleenex.”

“Many of these employees have been with the IRS for decades and were used to a world where how they talked about things internally was not something that would be public or that anyone would be interested in,” Paz told investigators in the first closed-door interview conducted on the IRS controversy. …

In all, Paz said she reviewed roughly 20 to 30 of the flagged Tea Party cases – the latest development suggesting that staffers in Cincinnati weren’t solely responsible for the targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

The Hill adds later on:

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told Univision on Monday that “the screening that took place in Cincinnati” was unacceptable, and stressed that “there is no evidence at all that suggests that there was any political involvement in any of these decisions.”

To work backwards: the treasury secretary is still attempting to pass off the false impression that the political targeting of the president’s critics was limited to the Cincinnati field office when we know–and which Paz’s testimony confirms–targeting was overseen by higher-ups in Washington D.C. and cases were reviewed from there as well.

But the explanation Paz offers is risible–not to mention flatly contradicted by the other testimony, the hearings, and the available evidence. Yet it is nonetheless revealing. Paz says that Tea Party was just code for political because IRS bureaucrats have their own terminology that the outside world doesn’t need to know or understand. But the end result was that conservative groups were targeted and treated unfairly. Thus even if Paz is being honest about how she interpreted the instructions, it does nothing to rebut the allegations of institutional bias at the IRS. If anything, it reinforces them.

The tax-exempt division at the IRS is weeding out what they deem to be overly political groups from those that are genuinely educational and philanthropic. And what do you know–conservative groups were deemed to be overly political and their liberal counterparts were deemed genuinely educational or philanthropic! Paz’s claim that she wasn’t consciously making this distinction is almost believable. She wasn’t attempting to bully or silence conservatives. She was simply pursuing what is right and good, and if it just so happens that liberal groups are right and good and conservatives are not, well then who is to blame? Surely not the IRS’s guardians of the light. Perhaps conservatives ought to do some soul searching and figure out where they went wrong.

This is a corollary to something Jonah Goldberg has long written about–the liberal fantasy that they follow not an ideology but merely a finely tuned moral compass. As Goldberg wrote last month:

For liberals, ideology is only something the other guys have. Liberalism is just doing the good and smart thing. If you think the good and smart thing is ideological, that’s just proof you’re a rightwing ideologue (or a racist!). The fact that doing good nearly always requires more government is just a coincidence.

And so it is with Paz’s “defense,” such as it is, of the IRS. If you think that there was an element of partisanship to what the IRS was doing, then you’re simply turning education and charity into a political issue–and revealing your own partisan biases in the process. Any upstanding, nonpartisan individual would do what the IRS bureaucrats were doing.

Meanwhile, Americans are, to their credit, not buying it. CNN’s newest poll, released this morning, shows 47 percent of respondents believed the White House ordered the political targeting of conservative groups by the IRS, a 10-percent increase, and that a majority believes the scandal “is very important to the nation.” The belief that American left-liberalism is synonymous with unimpeachable moral authority seems to be a minority view.

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