The IRS Scandal and the False Hope of Tea Party Revival
Amid all of the sound and fury bubbling up from the IRS examination of the various conservative organizations there’s hope among the Tea Party faithful that this controversy will somehow breathe new life into their movement. But will it be enough to reinvigorate a movement considered to be in disarray, if not politically stalled? Yes the vast majority of Americans holds the IRS in low esteem and is troubled by the revelations that the agency has, if nothing else, tangled rightwing organizations in excessive red tape, even if it hasn’t moved to cripple them altogether. However, as Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times pointed out, this isn’t the first time that an administration has used the IRS against the opposition, even though, to date, there’s no evidence that President Obama ordered any such action.
While the wild eyed voices on Capitol Hill have been bellowing for the impeachment of the president, the more level headed among them, and among conservative political pundits, have counseled caution least the Tea Party claque in Congress overplay its hand with negative consequences for 2014. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in a meticulously detailed piece outlines the vast differences between Watergate and the current IRS controversy. It is an analysis that undermines the very argument being made by the far right for the impeachment of President Obama: “Those who bother to read these historical snippets will find many important departures and only tenuous parallels between the Obama Administration’s IRS affair and Richard Nixon’s Watergate-era IRS scandal. A principal distinction is the ingredient of direct presidential involvement. President Nixon was the fulcrum, the visionary and the principal conspirator in his various capers to use the IRS as a political weapon. Nixon personally directed and persistently harangued his staff to audit, investigate and gather dirt on his enemies for personal purposes. Nixon went to reckless extremes even punishing IRS agents who refused to participate in his vendetta. A mean-spirited viciousness and his contagious enthusiasm for law breaking were also distinctive Nixon bailiwicks. In contrast, there is no evidence that Obama even knew of the IRS investigations which were presided over by Donald Shulman, a Bush appointee. The most recent evidence indicate that the Tea Party audits resulted not from intentional political targeting of conservatives from the sheer preponderous of Tea Party applications among the hundreds of 501(c)(4) tax exemption requests that deluged a tiny understaffed IRS field office.”
But while it’s important to note the fact that, to date, the current scandal doesn’t even come close to approximating the severity of Watergate as an assault on the Constitution, there is evidence that Tea Party organizations have pushed the limits of what was politically legitimate. That in turn has increased the attention given these groups by the IRS, which isn’t necessarily unwarranted or beyond the pale of legitimate agency operations. In the article “Groups Targeted by I.R.S. Tested Rules on Politics”, referenced below, two political reporters, Nicholas Confessore and Michael Luo, detail the many activities undertaken by conservative organizations over the past few years that have given rise to legitimate questions on the part of IRS agents who have conducted these examinations. Have those agents been overzealous, perhaps, but at the same time those agents wouldn’t be looking into these groups if they didn’t have a reason to believe that somehow these organizations hadn’t run afoul of the law. The IRS simply doesn’t have the luxury of excess manpower with which to carry out such a political wild goose chase no matter who might have requested such a thing. Likewise the claim by conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, a tireless critic of Barack Obama, that conservatives generally have been singled out for IRS harassment has been debunked prima facie as well by Nate Silver, as referenced below.
With all of the above being understood, what affect, if any, has the IRS scandal had, to date, on the public perception of the Tea Party movement as a whole? Is there any reason thus far to believe that this controversy is breathing new life into the Tea Party? Presently the answer is emphatically no. Jon Cohen and Dan Balz of the Washington Post, analyzing the results of the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll concluded the following: “The IRS scandal has brought the tea party back into the spotlight, but it has done little to change the public’s impressions of the political movement. In the poll, 40 percent of all Americans say they support the tea party movement and 43 percent oppose it, numbers stable back to last year. A record high of 17 percent express no opinion on the question. About 73 percent of conservative Republicans say they support the movement, but that’s the lowest percentage to say so in polls going back more than two years.” Moreover, when you go inside the results of this poll 74 percent of the respondents saw the IRS actions as inappropriate and 56 percent of respondents see this activity as deliberate harassment; 54 percent see the Federal Government as threatening the individual rights of the average citizen.
One would think that for all of the public discomfort being generated by the actions of the IRS that the American people would see anew some value in the Tea Party and its ideas. Ironically that has proven not to be the case. Likewise you would think that these same Americans would now be looking to throw Obama, the far right’s new Nixon, under the bus but that hasn’t happened either. Obama’s poll numbers have actually edged up since this controversy began. In fact if you examine the bulk of the data compiled by PollingReport.com, referenced below, the Tea Party movement has seen, in net terms, its popularity and acceptance decline overall since 2010 and it is, thus far, in no way positively affected by the current spate of scandal and revelation.
One would ask why, with all the unpopularity surrounding the IRS and big government generally and with all of the sensational media coverage and the mainstream media’s new found interest in challenging the Obama administration, why is it that the Tea Party seems to be getting little if any traction from all of this? I think that to for many informed observers the answers are self-evident if not outright obvious. For one thing, even though Americans are wary of “too much government” they have little stomach for deliberate government gridlock and when it comes to gridlock they see the Tea Party movement is the chief culprit in affecting the dysfunctional state of affairs that has come to characterize Washington D.C. generally and Capitol Hill in particular. Gridlock aside, the Tea Party’s penchant for economic austerity works to the movement’s disadvantage as this economic policy has come to be seen as a failure, even among serious conservative thinkers in organizations like the American Enterprise Institute. Finally, the movement is now beset by scandal as well, its onetime Congressional standard bearer Michelle Bachmann has decided not to run for reelection with a scandal of her own as a backdrop.
The essence of American democracy has always been compromise and it has been at those junctures in American history where the practice of compromise broke down that our democracy has been seen to fall short, sometimes with disastrous results, the Civil War being the most obvious example. In the current era it has been the Tea Party movement that has epitomized the belief put forth by Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser of pre-Civil war fame, who famously stated, “If you can’t compromise you can’t govern.” Today the American people know that there is little in the way of real political progress being made in Washington D.C. They see the Republican Party and the Tea Party specifically as the reason why. Furthermore, after three plus years on the American political scene, serious Tea Party missteps at the level of Republican Presidential politics and in Senate races have cast Tea Party politics and politicians in a less than flattering light. All one need do is think back over the clown fest that was the 2012 Republican primaries or some of the absurdities surrounding Tea Party backed candidates for the U.S. Senate during the last two election cycles and it’s not hard to see why, even in the wake of the current scandals and with issues that play right into the anti-government creed, that the Tea Party could still fail to benefit from this current state of affairs.
Scandals have rocked Washington before and they will rock it again. That said there’s another reason that the current round of scandal may fail to reinvigorate the Tea Party movement. The reason for this is that voters have had over three years to get to know the movement and there seems to be little coming out of it that those who don’t already support it find compelling. In fact if you go back inside the data in PollingReport.com you find that the numbers prove that those respondents who claim they don’t know enough about the Tea Party have been halved since data collection began in 2010, sometimes falling to single digits. It could be that even though the average American is disgusted with the state of American politics, those same Americans may see the Tea Party movement as part of the reason for that disgust and therefore the movement isn’t seen as part of the solution. After all one of the chief complaints about Washington today is gridlock, a word synonymous with the Tea Party and that’s not a good thing.
If the aforementioned is in fact the case, and I for one strongly believe it is, then there is little in the way of hope to be had from all of this that will ultimately bode well for the Tea Party. Yes voters can punish the Obama and the Democrats in 2014 at the ballot box, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve finally and firmly embraced the ideas of the Tea Party and the far right. We can see a replay of the 2010 elections which I believe to have been nothing more than a protest against the perceived excess of the first Obama administration rather than a rejection of progressive ideas. For if in fact the 2010 elections had been a rejection of the essence of the first Obama administration there would have never been a second one and as we all know it was Barack Obama and not a champion of the far right who was elected in November of 2012. In other words, as far as the fortunes of the Tea Party movement are concerned, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same.
Steven J. Gulitti
30 May 2013
IRS targeting scandal a political ‘gift from heaven’ for Tea Party groups; http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/299765-irs-scandal-a-political-gift-from-heaven-for-tea-party
Tea Party Looks to Gain Momentum in IRS Scandal Aftermath; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/19/tea-party-irs_n_3302392.html?ref=topbar
Sam Tanenhaus: The Government’s Worst Face; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/sunday-review/the-governments-worst-face.html?pagewanted=all
Confusion and Staff Troubles Rife at I.R.S. Office in Ohio; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/us/politics/at-irs-unprepared-office-seemed-unclear-about-the-rules.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0
IRS Scandal Letters: Other Offices Sent Requests To Target Tea Party Groups, NBC News Reports; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/28/irs-scandal-letters_n_3349174.html?utm_hp_ref=daily-brief?
Trio of Scandals Puts Obama, Holder in Hot Seat; http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/05/republicans-media-bare-down-on-administration-facing-two-scandals.html
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Obama and Nixon: A Historical Perspective; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-f-kennedy-jr/obama-nixon-watergate_b_3305611.html?utm_hp_ref=daily-brief?
Groups Targeted by I.R.S. Tested Rules on Politics; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/27/us/politics/nonprofit-applicants-chafing-at-irs-tested-political-limits.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Nate Silver: New Audit Allegations Show Flawed Statistical Thinking; http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/new-audit-allegations-show-flawed-statistical-thinking/?ref=politics
PollingReport.com: The Tea Party; http://www.pollingreport.com/politics.htm
Obama’s rating steady in face of controversies, likely buoyed by rising economic hopes; http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-05-21/politics/39402441_1_benghazi-attack-president-obama-irs-action
Obama, politics, IRS and Benghazi; http://www.washingtonpost.com/page/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2013/05/21/National-Politics/Polling/release_237.xml
Obama’s poll numbers hold up despite the storm of scandal; http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/302451-obamas-poll-numbers-hold-up-despite-the-storm-of-scandal