The Republican Plan to Exploit the IRS Scandal (Even Without a Smoking Gun)

Susan Walsh/AP File Photo

Republicans still haven’t found that smoking gun tying the White house to the IRS's targeting of tea-party groups. But that won't stop them from selling the scandal to voters as evidence Democrats cannot be trusted in Washington.

The public’s dislike of the IRS is so visceral and details of the scandal are so easily digestible that top Republican operatives say it fits neatly into their budding 2014 narrative against liberal big government, with or without proof of President Obama’s involvement.

“Of all the scandals, of all issues, this thing touches everyone’s life. Nobody likes the IRS,” said GOP strategist Scott Jennings, a former top adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It will have staying power, and it will be used—and it should be—in political campaigns.”

The House GOP leadership sent rank-and-file lawmakers home for the July Fourth holiday with a packet full of scandal-related talking points about how the tax agency is symptomatic of “an out-of-control, irresponsible government.” It includes a potential Facebook flyer for lawmakers to post that reads: “Target Conservatives by Day – Party & Dance by Night! #IRS”

The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, is preparing a paid media campaign in August to link the IRS and its troubles to the rollout of Obamacare. It will be timed for the next time lawmakers are back in their districts.

“The scandal has legs,” said NRCC Communications Director Andrea Bozek. And with multiple investigations ongoing in the Congress, it has the “potential to make more news,” she said, and put more “smiles on Republican operatives’ faces.”

The party has pushed to broaden the scope of its attacks on the IRS to include not just the improper targeting of conservatives but its lavish conferences, a costly Star Trek spoof video produced on the public’s dime, and the tax agency’s role in implementing the new health care law. The goal: Undermine trust in government, especially one run by the Democrats.

And what better agency to flog than the IRS, “this thing that everybody already hates,” Jennings said.

Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, said the IRS story line is already “deeply embedded in the psyche of many voters, and I think it will remain there all the way until 2014.”

The notion of tax authorities gone rogue “fits right there perfectly with a lot of the anger that voters have with Washington,” Madden said. “They looked at that and saw it as a summary indictment of what’s wrong with Washington: It’s inefficient, it’s wasting time and money, and its overly partisan.”

Democrats had hoped they had politically kneecapped some of that story line last week, with fresh revelations that progressives, along with tea-party groups, were on the controversial “be on the lookout” lists generated by the tax agency.

That fact “completely undermines the misguided political attacks congressional Republicans have sought to wage against the White House,” Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement to National Journal.  “Hopefully, the new information—combined with the continued findings that no one outside of the IRS was involved and that there is no evidence of political bias—will focus Republicans’ attention on helping to fix the problems of mismanagement at the IRS and establish oversight so this does not happen again.”

Republicans note that progressives didn’t receive the same kind of scrutiny as their tea-party counterparts, even if they were on a “BOLO.” The Treasury inspector general whose audit spurred the scandal has agreed. (Levin, for his part, has called into question the IG’s credibility, saying he authored reports that were “flawed in a fundamental way.”)

“Whatever muddying of the waters they want to do is really a temporary thing” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chair of the House oversight panel who has been the most aggressive congressional investigator.

Issa began his inquisition openly looking for evidence to tie the scandal to the top tiers of the Obama administration. “This was the targeting of the president’s political enemies effectively and lies about it during the election year, so that it wasn’t discovered until afterwards,” Issa said on CBS. On CNN, he called White House spokesman Jay Carney a “paid liar” and declared, “This is a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters and we're getting to proving it.”

But Republican strategists feel they’ve hit political pay dirt even without evidence the scandal reached into the White House.

“The IRS scandal has people across the ideological spectrum asking whether the government has become too powerful, too intrusive, and has gone too far,” said Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Those questions are the staying power of the scandal, and eat at the core of the modern Democratic Party and the rationale for reelecting Democratic candidates.”

But Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Republicans were misreading the landscape from their perch in the nation’s capital.

“Our view remains unchanged. Not two months ago, not now, voters don’t view Senate races through the lens of D.C.,” Barasky said. “People in Montana or people in Colorado or people in North Carolina, they’re going to vote for someone who they think is working for real solutions in the economy, fighting for jobs.”

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