Shades of Watergate

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For most of last week, Republican Congressmen kept discussing the Benghazi hearings.

Politically motivated or not, investigations into who changed talking points presented to the American public is appropriate. But it’s not comparable to Watergate, despite what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says.

Watergate involved the commission of a crime, a break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters and the resulting cover-up.

In the case of the edited Benghazi talking points, there is no alleged underlying crime. Lying to the American public after the fact for political purposes is generally derided as immoral, but you can’t be put in jail for it. At worst, the administration lied to protect itself during an election. Embarrassing? Absolutely. Morally wrong? Of course. Criminal? No.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen even said the hearings were unlikely to assist Republicans politically. In a post titled “Why the Benghazi hearings are likely to be a bust,” Rasmussen notes that most Americans are focused on domestic issues. Foreign policy doesn’t move the needle much compared with people’s pocketbooks.

“Only 10 percent of voters nationwide rank national security issues as their top concern,” Rasmussen wrote. “Most are more worried about the economy and fiscal policy issues.”

The Republican search for an Obama scandal that resonates may have changed Friday when Republicans found an issue that combines Watergate-level potential with an organization that is involved in nearly every pocketbook in America: the IRS.

The IRS admitted on Friday that it targeted conservative groups based upon their political leanings.

The groups, seeking 501(c)4 tax exempt status in accordance with United States law were targeted for extra questioning if they used the words “tea-party” or “patriot” in their founding documents. The Wall Street Journal reported that this was even broadened to include situations where those involved were “critical of how the country is being run.”

That is terrifying. It poses serious free speech implications and brings back memories of some of the most serious malfeasance in the Nixon administration.

Such organizations were singled out for extra scrutiny including lengthy questionnaires that asked for a lot of information including lists of donors, information on family members of past board members and all communications with members of legislative bodies.

In other words, the IRS asked for everything but the kitchen sink. Now, it looks like the organization may have lied about it to Congress.

Then-Commissioner of the IRS, Douglas Schulman, testified before Congress in March 2012 that there was “absolutely no targeting.” However, we now know that senior IRS officials were aware of the targeting nine months earlier and possibly sooner than that.

Schulman’s options aren’t good. Faced with a flood of complaints from members of Congress that their constituents were being targeted, he either lied to Congress about the targeting or he didn’t think to ask someone who was in charge of the situation. Numerous news reports have noted Lois G. Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, was briefed in June, 2011 on the subject. So Schulman is left to argue he committed a crime by lying to Congress or was grossly incompetent.

The bigger question is when and how the White House knew about these actions. In a way, it’s in the same position as Schulman. In March 2012, it was a big enough issue for Congressional hearings. At that point, ignorance of what had happened becomes a willing choice rather than an accident. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which someone at the White House didn’t think to pick up the phone, call the IRS, and figure out what had happened to coordinate a response.

How bad is it for the Obama administration? Let’s ask Time’s Joe Klein who once called Obama “the avatar of a new generation of progressives.” In a Saturday blog post in which Klein praises the Obama administration for previously avoiding scandals, Klein invoked the one political comparison no president ever wants.

“Previous presidents … have used the IRS against their enemies,” Klein wrote. “But I don’t think Obama ever wanted to be on the same page as Richard Nixon. In this specific case, he now is.”

And that’s the point. The media entities that Fox News and other conservative outlets have repeatedly accused of under-covering Benghazi are going full speed at the IRS scandal. Even NBCNews.com (formerly MSNBC.com) led with the headline “IRS Scandal is huge gift to GOP — and it won’t die soon” Monday.

The New York Times, even as it promoted an official editorial entitled, “Who can take Republicans seriously?” was reporting on the issue.

This story has already grown since Friday, with reports pushing up the date that the harassment first began into at least 2010.

This is an issue where outlets that dismissed Benghazi coverage are likely to take Republican complaints seriously. It will likely resonate with the American public as well.

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