The IRS scandal unwinds

And Peggy Noonan pushes crazy conspiracy theories in the WSJ

The IRS Tea Party “scandal” has taken a couple of body blows in the last week.

First, it emerged that a self-professed “conservative Republican” in the Cincinnati office was responsible for the targeting of Tea Party groups back in 2010 (when a George W. Bush appointee, by the way, was in charge of the IRS), that the White House had nothing to do with that targeting, and that Republicans leading the congressional investigation prevented that testimony from emerging while leaking all sorts of other stuff to the press.

Now it turns out, ahem, that the Tea Party was not the only group flagged for further review by the Cincy IRS. Other keywords that triggered extra scrutiny included progressive, occupy, Israel, open source software, medical marijuana, occupied territory advocacy, and, one presumes, nonprofit journalism.

Bloomberg News has the best run-down of the latest development:

The documents don’t show that Tea Party groups and progressives were treated equally. In fact, they suggest that the entries on the BOLO derived from separate efforts to police applications for tax-exempt status for political activity…

On the document released by Democrats, the reference to progressives is in a different section than the Tea Party groups, and it doesn’t direct employees to send the cases to a special unit, unlike the Tea Party cases.

Even on the first BOLO released, from August 2010, progressives are listed under the label of TAG Historical, short for Touch-and-Go Historical, or issues that had been raised in the past. Tea Party is listed under Emerging Issues.

Progressive groups were filed under “Touch-and-Go Historical”, meaning a group that had been reviewed in the past but could be problematic. Tea Party groups were filed under Emerging Issues, which is how my reporting last fall two falls ago showed nonprofit news groups were treated as a class by the IRS’s Cincinnati office:

The agency processes tens of thousands of nonprofit applications a year from its Cincinnati office. Most are routinely processed in two to three months, but some with novel issues are bundled together and sent to Washington for further study. The IRS flagged nonprofit news because of the increasing applications and because it has historically resisted giving newspapers, or publications that seem like newspapers, tax-exempt status, Owens says.

Rather than the Nixonian conspiracy that George Will and The Wall Street Journal editorial page so darkly warned about—with zero evidence—you have a routine bureaucratic procedure meant to bundle potentially problematic applicants together for further review. The “abuses” the right has screamed about are the same ones that nonprofit journalism applicants like SF Public Press, The Lens, and many others faced, especially long delays and invasive questioning (and, ultimately, approval—no Tea Party group’s application ultimately was denied). Again, this was not some big secret. It was readily available information.

But Noonan, who called the to-do “the worst Washington scandal since Watergate,” is still holding on to her story, desperately. Charles Pierce destroys her latest column. But its her blog post from the following day (to be fair, before yesterday’s news, not like it would matter) that’s most astonishing. She asks “Where Was the Tea Party?” in the 2012 election, and effectively concludes, riffing off a seriously problematic AEI report (but I repeat myself), that it was repressed by the eeeevil Obama administration.

The Democrats had been badly shaken by the Republican comeback of 2010. They feared a repeat in 2012 that would lose them the White House.

Might targeting the tea-party groups—diverting them, keeping them from forming and operating—seem a shrewd campaign strategy in the years between 2010 and 2012? Sure. Underhanded and illegal, but potentially effective.

Yes, she actually went there.

“The bottom line is that the Tea Party movement, when properly activated, can generate a huge number of votes—more votes in 2010, in fact, than the vote advantage Obama held over Romney in 2012. The data show that had the Tea Party groups continued to grow at the pace seen in 2009 and 2010, and had their effect on the 2012 vote been similar to that seen in 2010, they would have brought the Republican Party as many as 5-8.5 million votes compared to Obama’s victory margin of 5 million.”
Think about the sheer political facts of the president’s 2012 victory. The first thing we learned, in the weeks after the voting, was that the Obama campaign was operating with a huge edge in its technological operation—its vast digital capability and sophistication. The second thing we learned, in the past month, is that while the campaign was on, the president’s fiercest foes, in the Tea Party, were being thwarted, diverted and stopped.

Technological savvy plus IRS corruption. The president’s victory now looks colder, more sordid, than it did. Which is why our editor, James Taranto, calls him “President Asterisk.”

The Tea Party flared up in 2010, a mid-term election year when far fewer people actually vote. The turnout rate was just 41 percent in 2010—more than 20 percentage points less than in 2008 and 17 less than 2012. A spike in voter intensity amongst one party in mid-terms makes a much bigger impact than it does in presidential election years, which is why Noonan’s yard-signs-I-noticed indicator didn’t work so well in 2012.

The AEI report says if the Tea Party had grown as fast in 2011 and 2012 as it did in 2009 and 2010 then it might have overcome Obama’s 5 million vote margin. Well, yes. But the law of large numbers means that exponential growth has to slow down rapidly. And the moderating of the financial crisis, the rearview mirror status of the Obamacare and stimulus fights, a centrist turn in his presidency away from major initiatives and toward austerity, plus the extremism and eccentricity of the movement itself, tamped down the flames.

I’d also note that the IRS started flagging Tea Party application in early 2010, well before the midterm elections it helped the GOP take in a landslide.

Again, Noonan’s ramblings are printed in the biggest paper in the land, and she’s a pundit in good standing on Meet the Press. None of this will change no matter how long she continues to flog the whacked-out, evidence-free conspiracy theory that the president of the United States stole his re-election by unleashing the IRS on his enemies.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,