Mitch McConnell delivered a speech today at the American Enterprise Institute to officially signal that the IRS scandal has entered its post-fact phase. When the IRS first revealed that its Cincinnati office had attempted to enforce its nonprofit laws using a search function that disproportionately impacted conservatives, Republicans were certain it must have come from the White House. They were going to follow the facts. But all of the facts point in the same direction, which is that the Obama administration had nothing to do with it at all. That was the conclusion of the agency’s inspector-general report, as well as the House Oversight Committee’s own interviews, which the Republican majority tried to suppress and which (when the Democrats released them) showed the operation was an independent, well-intentioned effort to enforce the law led by an IRS official who happens to be a conservative Republican.
McConnell’s speech is an attempt to reframe the issue in a way that it can survive the utter absence of incriminating facts. One method he employs is to flip around the burden of proof:
Now we have an administration that’s desperately trying to prove that nobody at the top was involved in any of this stuff, even as they hope that the media loses interest in this scandal and moves on …
Got that? Before Republicans were going to prove that Obama’s administration was involved. All of the evidence suggests it wasn’t. So now McConnell is framing the question as Obama trying to prove he wasn’t involved. Which, of course, he can’t. For that matter, McConnell can’t prove that he didn’t mastermind the IRS. You can’t prove a negative.
McConnell also argues that the scandal is larger than facts about illegality or misconduct — “what we’re dealing with here is larger than the actions of one agency or any group of employees.” By “larger,” McConnell means the scandal is just the same nebulous suspicions they have always had about Democrats running the government:
The attacks on speech that we’ve seen over the past several years were never limited to a few Left-wing pressure groups or the DISCLOSE Act. They extend throughout the federal government, to places like the FEC, the FCC, HHS, the SEC, and as all Americans now know — even to the IRS. These assaults have often been aided and abetted by the administration’s allies in Congress.
The “Disclose Act” is a proposed measure that would require unregulated political groups to publicly disclose their donors. Back when campaign finance reformers were trying to actually put limits on outside donations, McConnell was a fierce advocate of this idea. Since the Supreme Court killed spending limits, disclosure has become the best reformers can hope for, and McConnell has now turned against it and indeed portrays it as a sinister Nixonian attempt to suppress free speech.
The belligerent and borderline-paranoid tone of McConnell’s speech today is a kind of covered retreat, signaling the IRS scandal’s turn into a vague trope that conservatives use with other members of the tribe, the way liberals liked to say “Halliburton” during the Bush years, to signal some dark beliefs they don’t need to back up.