the national interest

The IRS Scandal Is Becoming a Conspiracy Theory

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation regarding the Internal Revenue Service May 15, 2013 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Obama had a meeting with Senior Treasury Officials, including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew via telephone, on the situation regarding the Internal Revenue Service.
Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

The Internal Revenue Service scandal remains alive and well as an agency screwup story. But agency screwup stories, even ones centering on the agency Republicans most despise and deliberately hobble, have limited political utility. What Republicans want is for the IRS story to be an Obama scandal. And as an Obama scandal, the IRS story is quickly following the same trajectory as the Benghazi story: a fever swamp obsession, in which understanding the fundamentally sinister character of the Obama administration is the predicate for interpreting all information or lack thereof, and the term becomes a code phrase shared by true believers to stand for deeper currents of left-wing machinations invisible to those outside the tribe.

Conservatives initially seized on the possibility that the IRS’s politically loaded search function to enforce its 501c(4) category represented an Obama-directed effort to punish his enemies. Yet every subsequent piece of information has undercut this suspicion. The IRS inspector general, a Republican appointee, found that the problems all originated from within low levels of the agency. Deep reporting from the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal all found the same. (If you think reporters at those newspapers are covering up the administration’s involvement, you think they’re throwing away the chance to blow open a huge scandal.)

These findings have left suspicious-minded conservatives undaunted. “It’s pretty inconceivable to me that the President wouldn’t know,” says John Boehner. “I refuse to believe that lower-level officials would be making those kinds of decisions,” adds Republican Charles Boustany. If you refuse to believe something, you’re not going to care about evidence for it.

Instead, the accusation is metastasizing into the claim that Obama has sicced the agency on conservatives through audits of their tax returns. Peggy Noonan sees dark patterns of Republicans facing audits, apparently unaware that there are lots of audits every year and nearly half the country voted Republican. Larry Conners, a local reporter in St. Louis, became a right-wing hero by claiming the IRS started persecuting him after he asked Obama tough questions in an interview, only for Conners to subsequently concede, “I should disclose that my issues with the IRS preceded that interview by several years.” Tom Coburn and John Cornyn’s spokesman today began echoing the audacious claim that the IRS unfairly singled out Romney donors.

And sure — it could be true. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as a wise man once said. But the entire basis for this belief appears to be that something bad has happened at the IRS, and Richard Nixon once directed the IRS to do bad things, therefore Obama has probably directed the IRS to do bad things. Instead, down, down, down the rabbit hole we go.

The IRS Scandal Is Becoming a Conspiracy Theory