Something odd happened to Barack Obama's approval rating last week: nothing. With a bunch of controversies swirling about the administration, one might think Americans would be thinking less of his performance. Yet the latest polls from Gallup and CNN both show his job approval essentially unchanged, at just at or above 50 percent.
So far anyway, these "scandals" are, like most scandals, an almost completely partisan phenomenon. Yes, there are some—Watergate, Iran-Contra—where the facts are so damning and undeniable that even the president's own party can't help but acknowledge them. But Benghazi and the IRS are not Watergate or Iran-Contra. Perhaps they'll turn out to be, if we find out something completely shocking. Perhaps we'll discover that Barack Obama is on tape personally ordering the Cincinnati IRS office to put the screws to Tea Party groups, just as Richard Nixon was on tape ordering his aides to get the IRS to audit his political opponents. But that hasn't happened yet.
So conservatives are trying something new. If you were paying close attention the last couple of days, you saw them bringing up a new charge, one unrelated to the actual controversy: IRS income-tax audits. At first glance that may seem strange. After all, there hasn't been any evidence that anyone was audited because of their political beliefs or activities. This controversy is about political groups being given undue scrutiny when they applied for 501(c)(4) status as "social welfare" organizations. The part of the agency that carries out those reviews doesn't audit individuals' tax returns. Yet here was Peggy Noonan, claiming "The IRS scandal has two parts. The first is the obviously deliberate and targeted abuse, harassment and attempted suppression of conservative groups. The second is the auditing of the taxes of political activists." The "evidence" for Noonan's explosive charge is that she read about a couple of conservatives who were among the 1.5 million Americans who were audited by the IRS last year (read Nate Silver for more on how unbelievably stupid Noonan's allegation is). Here's an account of the weekend's Virginia GOP convention, at which a whole slate of Tea Partiers was selected to run in November's elections there: "By being here today, every one of you has just signed up for an audit by the I.R.S.,' Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said in a keynote speech. 'You are officially now on the White House enemies list.'"
We'll be hearing more of these stories. Because after all, if 1.5 million Americans were audited last year, plenty of them were conservatives. And plenty of those will be happy to tell their stories to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or Peggy Noonan. "I signed up for my local Tea Party, and not six months later the IRS came after me!" they'll say. Some of these stories will be told in high-profile forums, and others in more obscure outlets; for instance, here's a conservative writer telling her tale of oppression to the Catholic News Agency. During her audit, she says, "They only wanted to talk about who was paying me to do my writing." Really? "Hendershott said that the questions were not explicitly political, but she interpreted them to mean the agency was 'wanting to know if there were individuals or groups who wanted me to write to advance their cause.'" Maybe. Or maybe because she's a writer and they were auditing her income taxes, they were asking her who paid her to write because that's where she gets her income. Just tossing that out there.
It's pretty obvious what's going on here. On one hand, nobody likes the IRS, so people are ready to believe the worst about the agency's activities. On the other hand, getting your 501(c)(4) application subjected to unusual scrutiny is not something most people can relate to. Even worse, the reporting that's emerging about the IRS office in Cincinnati (see here) paints a picture not of some coordinated effort at political oppression, but of a bunch of overworked, ill-trained people who barely understood the standards they were supposed to apply to these applications and didn't get the support they needed from Washington. They ended up acting inappropriately, but it wasn't a criminal conspiracy, and it didn't reach up to the heights of power.
For conservatives, that's not a very satisfying story. But they know that everyone fears getting their tax returns audited. So why not just tell everyone that's what happened?