Taking Stock With Chuck Todd

AP

There was just a very interesting segment with Chuck Todd on MSNBC commenting on the President’s press conference and his comments on Benghazi and the IRS. Todd noted very different body language and attitude from the President on each point — irritated and dismissive about Benghazi but more cautious and actually pissed about the conduct at the IRS.

Somehow that does not seem particularly surprising to me. It’s an instructive example of how drilling down to the substance of a story can make some mysterious things suddenly not so mysterious.The Benghazi ‘scandal’ is really about the worst example you can imagine of a partisan clown car driving through Washington. As the President said pretty succinctly, “the whole issue of talking points, frankly throughout this process, has been a sideshow.”

The additional information we’ve gotten over recent weeks points to a turf war and blame-shifting between the State Department and the CIA over who was responsible for what happened, a feud seemingly rooted in the fact that the location in question was in fact a CIA facility under State Department cover.

From the git-go, the Benghazi story has been the partisan hunger for a scandal – first to shift the presidential election and then later to try to recover from it – trying to find something, really anything in a tragic series of events to make into a scandal.

First it was apologizing to the terrorists. Then it was not using the t-word soon enough. Then it was President Obama in the Situation Room watching the attack unfold and calling off a rescue. Now, we’re down to whether the State Department and the CIA massaged talking points that an administration official was going to use on a Sunday show. The only real after the fact issue there’s ever been is why there wasn’t enough or whether there should have been more security at such a vulnerable location. But that’s not a politically juicy enough question to get attention because it’s very hard to connect it in a meaningful way to important political players.

The IRS story is a very different question. As I said from the git-go, targeting applicants for review based on partisan catchwords is really, really bad. What’s baffled me since Friday is how IRS agents – whether it was the line agents’ idea or someone from above – wouldn’t have immediately realized this was a problem. Most of us know the real sensitivities tied to the huge power of the IRS when it comes to political affiliation. And I’d expect anyone at the IRS – even down at a very bureaucratic level – to be at least as hip to those realities.

I’ve heard some people say that since no groups actually had their petitions denied that it’s essentially no harm no foul. But that doesn’t cut it. Review itself is a burden — in money and time. Given how pervasive and almost endemic skirting and breaking the rules is on this front, it would have been perfectly reasonable to apply this level of review to all applicants. That likely would have been advisable. But using right-leaning keywords to narrow the search has a disparate impact which should make it an obvious no-no.

Several people have pointed out that the IRS was facing something like a flood of new (and in most cases probably iffy, on the left and right) 501c applications in the aftermath of Citizens United and in the build up to the 2012 election. But again, simply no excuse. Obviously wrong to try to manage it that way.

There are really three things that seem worth immediately investigating. First, is it clear that the decision bubbled up from below rather than being ordered from above? Second, was the decision to target in this way just really bad judgment or was it driven by partisan decision-making on the part of these low-level employees in Cincinnati? Third, if it really was just bad judgment, is there something broader about the organizational culture that would breed that kind of misjudgment?

Obviously, partisans on both sides are going to be most focused on question one because that’s where the story gets real political legs or sees the whole thing confined to bureaucrats who – from a partisan political perspective – no one particularly cares about. And on this front, though no one really seems to be focusing on it, Republicans come into the drama with a few checks against them.

First, the IRS Commissioner in place during this entire drama was a Bush administration holdover. That’s a fairly big strike against the credibility of any high level conspiracy to crackdown on Republican leaning groups. Marco Rubio demanded that the Commissioner resign this morning. But that guy already resigned last November. The position is currently vacant, with an acting Commissioner currently in place. More pointedly, the main takeaway from the as-yet-unreleased but widely leaked IRS IG report is that the woman in charge of the division overseeing nonprofits told the people in Cincinnati to stop when she was first informed of it in 2011. That seems pretty telling on the question of whether the people in Cincinnati were doing this at the direction of people in Washington.

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