Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why the IRS Scandal is Real and Benghazi Isn't

It has been a good week for the GOP.  Once-disgraced South Carolina ex-Governor Mark Sanford completed an unlikely political comeback, winning a special congressional race against Elizabeth Colbert-Busch (sister of liberal-who-plays-a-conservative-on-tv comedian Stephen Colbert), they got their Benghazi hearings and the IRS admitted to making a mistake in flagging groups that contained the name "Tea Party" for further review of tax status.

Let's deal with these issues one at a time:
(1) The Sanford Win
Democrats certainly thought they had a shot in this race, particularly after Sanford was reported to have violated a restraining order by his ex-wife, and poured money into the campaign.  The National Republican Campaign Committee had pulled funding for Sanford, perhaps because they thought he was a losing cause and perhaps because they simply didn't want to be affiliated with him given the potential for future scandal.

That Sanford won isn't totally unexpected, this is a heavily Republican district after all, that elected Tim Scott, now the Tea Party-affiliated Senator from the state (appointed by conservative Governor Nikki Haley to fulfill the term of Jim Demint, who had moved on to The Hertiage Foundation, a conservative think tank.  That he won by 9 points is a repudiation of the notion that Democrats can compete in conservative districts.

Sanford was about the worst possible GOP candidate, laden with scandals past and present.  He ran a horrible campaign, debating cardboard cutouts of Nancy Pelosi, rather than presenting a real message for why he was being elected.

But in the end, it didn't matter - the district basically broke the way it was designed to and elected Sanford.

Whether Sanford himself will be an asset or a liability to the GOP remains to be seen.  That his election shows the difficulty that Democrats will have picking up House seats in 2014 is unquestionable.

(2) Benghazi
My Republican friends are really upset about Benghazi.  They just aren't really clear about why.  House hearings this week called into question the extent to which talking points given to the press in the aftermath of the attack on our embassy in Libya had been edited by administration officials.  I'm just not sure what the scandal is.

Let's assume that the worst of the (as yet unproven) GOP allegations are true.  As near as I can tell, they are essentially that:
a. The embassy in Libya had asked for additional security prior to the attack
b. The Obama Administration had failed to provide the additional security requested
c. The Administration knew that the attack had been a terrorist plot, but knowingly put forward a story that the attack may have been about an internet video

Point a is fairly established fact.  The embassy in Libya HAD asked for additional security, as had virtually every other embassy in the Middle East, Africa and even Europe.  The Obama administration had requested an increase in the operating budget for embassy security operations, which was summarily denied by the Republican House.  So points A and B seem squarely on the GOP's shoulders.

Point C may have some merit.  While the national security apparatus certainly didn't provide decisive answers about the source of the attack in the initial aftermath, it certainly seems the administration downplayed the potential role of Al Qaeda in the attack, relative to what was provided by the security community.

My question is - so what?  That Presidents frame security in terms favorable to them is hardly new ground in Washington - does anyone remember the run-up to the Iraq War?  That the President's advisors framed the issue the way they did did not impact any matter of policy or contain a request of Congress to authorize a particular option.

So at the very worst, we are talking about playing politics around national security issues, a distasteful practice, undoubtedly, but hardly an impeachment-worthy scandal.

(3) The IRS Scandal
Of all the news this week, this is by far the most chilling.  After pressure from conservative groups, the IRS admits to flagging tax-exempt applications from groups containing the name "Tea Party" for further review.

First, a bit of context.  In order to have tax-exempt status, an organization's primary purpose must be the promotion of social welfare.  A limited amount of political advocacy is allowed, but political advocacy cannot be the organization's primary purpose.  For example, the Nature Conservancy, a group that primarily uses donor funds to purchase unspoiled wilderness for the purposes of preservation (a promotion of social welfare) but also advocates for better control of global warming (political advocacy) is tax exempt but the Sierra Club, a group that primarily advocates for stronger environmental legislation (political advocacy) does not qualify.

That some of the "Tea Party" groups engage in political advocacy is unquestionable.  That some even PRIMARILY engage in advocacy and therefore would be ineligible for tax exempt status is likely.  That the reason for their flagging was the use of the words "Tea Party" in their name is chilling.

While the IRS states that this was used as a "shortcut" and not because of "political bias", this is a pretty thin explanation.  If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, in this case a duck being a political witch hunt, it is probably a duck.

Not since the Nixon administration has the IRS been weaponized against political opponents.  The Obama Administration needs to condemn this action unambiguously and fire the administrators involved.  If this is tied back to the higher levels of the Obama Administration, that WOULD be a real scandal, unlike Benghazi.

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