“…I still hear people saying we were low level employees, so we were lower than dirt, according to people in D.C. So, take it for what it is. They were basically throwing us underneath the bus.”
-- Unnamed IRS employee in the agency’s Cincinnati office talking to House investigators about claims that the targeting of conservative groups was the result of rogue agents in the office.
When a senior adviser to the president is attacking a House member over being arrested 40 years ago, you know things are starting to get interesting in Washington.
David Plouffe, Democratic sage and architect of President Obama’s successful 2012 community organizing approach to re-election, flipped out on Twitter Sunday after House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa called White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a “paid liar” in reference to the shifting stories from the administration about the targeting of conservatives by the IRS.
Plouffe called Issa “Mr. Grand Theft Auto,” a reference to Issa’s 1972 arrest for car theft. The charges were later dropped and Issa famously went on to make millions with a car alarm business.
The very fact that such a senior Obama adviser would be dredging up Issa’s youthful arrest record is a strong indicator of how ugly this will get, and how quickly.
Team Obama would very much like to turn Issa into the Ken Starr of this decade and put an embattled president’s chief prosecutor on trial. And Issa certainly gives them some ammunition as a high-profile inquisitor and by using hot words like “liar.”
But it’s going to take more than stoking media skepticism about Issa to shift the focus away from the still unfolding story of abuses aimed at the president’s political enemies. Fear is the father of rage, and the rage against Issa suggests there is fear aplenty when it comes to the IRS scandal.
Appearing on “This Week,” earlier Sunday, Plouffe fiercely denied any connection between the White House and the harassment of conservative groups ahead of the 2010 and 2012 elections. He said that doing so “would be the dumbest political effort of all time.”
Don’t be so sure, Mr. Plouffe. How about hiring burglars to sneak into the rival political party’s headquarters to steal their election plans? That would be pretty dumb, right?
The reason presidents typically steer clear of the IRS is that they like the political insulation that the agency’s semi-autonomy provides. Bill Clinton made hay in his second term by attacking the IRS right alongside Republicans. It wasn’t his IRS, it was the IRS and he was going after it. Clinton wasn’t blamed for the abuses of 20 years ago, he was credited for reforming the agency.
But President Obama, who has shown a policy passion for the mechanics of tax enforcement, brought the IRS into the heart of the Executive Branch. The dozens and dozens of White House campus visits by former Commissioner Douglas Shulman show just how close the relationship has become.
Political wisdom would suggest that the only time a president wants face time with the IRS boss is in either hiring or firing him or her. Obama, though, wanted to bring Shulman into the loop.
There is little that Obama has discussed more frequently than taxes. His great policy obsession has been using the tax code to reduce income inequality to help engineer a society with a broader middle class – to take money from top earners and spend it on projects he believes will push poor people into middle-income stability.
And for the president and his political team, the question of who pays what in taxes has been an animating concern. If there was a centerpiece of Obama’s re-election campaign it was Mitt Romney’s tax returns, used as evidence that Romney was not patriotic or moral because he took advantage of tax shelters to protect his vast fortune.
The tax returns of others were of issue too. Romney’s donors, wealthy conservatives funding political action and others on the right were held up as evidence that Republicans want to rig the system to help rich people abuse the poor. The belief has been that if regular Americans knew about the low rates paid by the super rich, the president could defeat his challenger and achieve the long-frustrated liberal goal of winning a tax-rate increase.
Obama did both of those things, but is now reaping some tragic consequences for his taxation fixation. And Obama, ironically, is now the one who has tax secrets to keep from view.
Preliminary reports from House investigators suggest that the field agents designated to be fall guys and gals for the tax scandal are not buying into the part. They say, according to interviews from Issa’s committee, that the orders to target conservative groups cam from Washington, and that high-level officials asked that case files on conservative groups be passed along for extra scrutiny.
Front-line workers bridled at the idea for fear that they would be left holding the bag. Prescient thinking, it would seem.
The idea that this scandal could be contained in Cincinnati was always a little silly, but the effort to shove this down to the Queen City is about to boomerang on the White House.
Plouffe offers as a defense that no one in Obama’s orbit would be so stupid as to have directed the IRS to harass the president’s enemies. That remains to be seen. Seemingly smart people often do obviously stupid things.
But what about tacitly encouraging the harassment? What about getting wind of it but not stopping it? What about finding a helpful, ideologically aligned IRS official to slip you some sensitive tax information to use against a political enemy? Was no one on team Obama so stupid as to have done any of those things?
Team Obama is making a big bet that either none of those things happened, or if they did the wrongdoing can be kept secret until it would be less politically damaging.
As the folks in Cincinnati start to shove the blame back up the organizational chart, the fears will grow. And so will, as Plouffe’s outburst revealed, the anger.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.