Understanding the Politics of the IRS Scandal


We’re just at the front end of investigating the IRS scandal. And all the standard blah blah blah about how we don’t know just what we’ll find. But I think we do know pretty much exactly what the political implications will be. And they’re significant.The primary effect is that for some time to come – and likely through next year’s election – it allows elected Republicans to get right on the same page with the Tea Party and what the Tea Party essentially is, which is the ideological base of the Republican party, which is pretty much unchanged for the last 25 years.

Yes, it goes without saying that a scandal on one party’s watch is good politically for the opposition party. But it goes well beyond that in this case because of the aftermath of the 2012 election.

Gays and immigration have been key ways for Republican elected officials to connect with the party’s base for years. Not the only ways but some of the most effective and resonant. But post-2012 those two touch points are largely off-limits – immigration entirely and gay rights to a lesser degree.

This has been a major, major problem for Republicans. The main ways they communicate with the base of the party have been largely off-limits. It’s all made the national GOP perpetually wrong footed or like a big ship on a windless sea. The IRS scandal – and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to call it a scandal – addresses that problem quite nicely.

Let’s assume for the moment that this plays out with some mix of poor judgment and perhaps bias at lower levels of the IRS but no direction from on high that would implicate the administration or top appointees themselves. The nature of this scandal – the government, particularly the IRS singling out and persecuting conservatives – appeals to the heart of the right-wing conspiracy-generating mindset.

If you wanted create a scandal to have maximal appeal to GOP base freakout, this is it. And it has the additional advantage of not creating the same sort of off-putting crazy as hitting other bugaboos beloved by base Republicans. It’s not about Obama’s ties to the Muslim brotherhood or his foreign birth. It’s about taxes, something everyone has an experience with and understands. And it’s at least rooted in something that’s true. Something really did happen. And it’s not good. It shouldn’t happen. It even has unexpected knock-on effects like the IRS’s supposed connection to the dreaded ‘Obamacare’.

That’s why you’re seeing Mitch McConnell go so full bore on this. He’s not particularly well-liked in his state and he’s not particularly well liked by Tea Parties or base Republicans. But now he can bang the drum on something that appeals deeply to these folks. He can now be with them cheek and jowl. And that is a very, very big deal. As can basically every other national Republican elected official. And again, all of this applies even if, as I assume, we learn that none of this stemmed from political hanky-panky from administration leaders.


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.