This past weekend on Meet the Press, David Gregory offered up a tough question for Rudy Giuliani after the former New York City mayor tried to deflect attention from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's bridge scandal by pointing to the now-deflated allegations that the IRS had mishandled the non-profit applications of conservative groups. "I think it's fair to point out that for those who have raised that issue, what they said is the culture was created by President Obama for this kind of abuse to have occurred," said Gregory of the IRS story. "That link has never been proven or established. But if that's your standard, then isn't Governor Christie accountable for creating a culture where this kind of abuse could've occurred and been ordered by top lieutenants?"
As Gregory noted, conservatives spent months claiming that while no evidence links President Obama or the White House to improper IRS actions, the president was nonetheless culpable because the agency's bureaucrats agents were subconsciously responding to Obama's anti-Tea Party rhetoric by going after his political enemies. This "Bureaucrat Whispering" theory never made much sense, and was largely rendered moot after the IRS "scandal" largely fell apart.
As Gregory points out, intellectual honesty should lead the proponents of the IRS Bureaucrat Whispering theory to grapple with the possibility that Christie, whose pattern of bullying and abuse of power is well-known, created a culture in which his top aides and appointees felt comfortable creating a four-day traffic jam as a means of political retribution. But that hasn't happened.
In reality, responses to the Christie scandal from the advocates of the Bureaucrat Whispering theory include Fox News contributor Erick Erickson minimizing the bridge story as "routine hardball politics" and claiming that the "only difference is that Christie's staff put it in emails, which was not smart." Meanwhile, Washington Post writer Jennifer Rubin has pretended Christie's bullying reputation is an invention of the media.
And then there's Kimberley Strassel.
The Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member wrote at least three separate columns last year explaining how the White House was "involved in the IRS's targeting of conservatives" because President Obama's Tea Party criticisms created an "environment in which the IRS thought this was acceptable." According to Strassel:
President Obama and Co. are in full deniability mode, noting that the IRS is an "independent" agency and that they knew nothing about its abuse. The media and Congress are sleuthing for some hint that Mr. Obama picked up the phone and sicced the tax dogs on his enemies.
But that's not how things work in post-Watergate Washington. Mr. Obama didn't need to pick up the phone. All he needed to do was exactly what he did do, in full view, for three years: Publicly suggest that conservative political groups were engaged in nefarious deeds; publicly call out by name political opponents whom he'd like to see harassed; and publicly have his party pressure the IRS to take action.
After spending thousands of words discussing how President Obama's speeches trickled-down to IRS bureaucrats and impelled their actions, here's Strassel's sole mention at the Journal of Christie's aides ordering political retribution, from her January 16 column: "And now back to our previously scheduled outrage over the Chris Christie administration's abuse of traffic cones on the George Washington Bridge."
The comment came, of course, in the middle of a piece otherwise dedicated to trumping up a new IRS scandal.
Strassel addressed the Christie story in greater detail on the Journal's weekly Fox News program. But when Journal editorial editor Paul Gigot asked her on January 12 whether the story demonstrates "a culture of payback," in Christie's administration, she blamed the inherent corrupt political environment of the state, not the state's governor.
GIGOT: But, Kim, are there any lessons here we can take away about Gov. Christie's management style? Is there really possibly a culture of payback, a thin-skinned attitude on his staff? "You cross us, we're going to go after you"? And is that a message you want to take to a campaign in 2016?
STRASSEL: Look, New Jersey is a rough place to play politics. One of the things we haven't mentioned here is: Does it really surprise anybody that this happened in New Jersey? And, yes, there probably are members of his staff that come out of that New Jersey political environment and do have that approach. I think what voters, however, are going to look at is his argument that he is a straight shooter and he handles problems when they come up. And that's what he tried to do this week. And that's the message he'll take when he goes out.
Strassel isn't the only conservative running from the Bureaucrat Whispering charge now that it risks damaging one of their own. "That's a very, very ambiguous and amorphous charge that the culture created it. My goodness, you know, things go wrong in every administration," Giuliani explained on Meet The Press. "People would do things. They thought I wanted it. I didn't. I had to straighten it out. I'd have to say, 'I don't want it.'"
Fox's Sunday morning political talk show cherry-picked information from recently-released House hearing transcripts and a Senate report on the September 11, 2012, attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, to falsely suggest that the Obama administration's explanation of events was deliberately intended to mislead the American people.
Over at Salon, Joan Walsh despairs at the possibility that an honest, productive debate over the need to intervene militarily in Syria will fall victim to the "familiar dysfunctional ditch of Republicans abandoning their historic values to sabotage Obama, and Democrats putting the need to support their beleaguered president ahead of their need to craft a new national security policy." She's talking primarily about the debate in Congress, now that President Obama is seeking legislative approval for the use of force, but there's also a great, big, gas-baggy media conversation to be had. And judging by the initial reaction to Obama's push to secure Congressional authorization, the conservative reflex to abandon principle and oppose Obama is already taking hold.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal this morning, Kimberley Strassel whacks Obama for putting the Syria question before Congress, calling his "crude calculus" overtly political and asking: "When did a U.S. commander in chief last so cynically play politics with American credibility?" Per Strassel's reckoning, if Obama is going to intervene, he should own it:
Now trapped by his own declaration, Mr. Obama is reverting to the same strategy he has used in countless domestic brawls -- that is, to lay responsibility for any action, or failure of action, on Congress. The decision was made easier by the fact that Congress itself was demanding a say.
That proved too tempting for a president whose crude calculus is that Congress can now rescue him however it votes. Should Congress oppose authorizing action against Syria, he can lay America's failure to honor his promises on the legislative branch. Obama aides insist that even if Congress votes no, the president may still act -- though they would say that. The idea that Mr. Obama, having lacked the will to act on his own, would proceed in the face of congressional opposition is near-fantasy.
The IRS "scandal" keeps on failing to live up to its initial hype, but certainly not for lack of trying. The fracas that was once billed as the worst DC scandal since Watergate has slowly, steadily deflated despite conservative efforts to blow life into it, and the media have almost completely lost interest in the story. As both Steve Benen and Alex Seitz-Wald observe, this lack of press attention to the IRS scandal's undoing verges on reckless, given the insane amount of coverage and hype it received at the outset.
But how did we even get to the point where the IRS scandal became a "scandal?" Everyone lost their minds and jumped to conclusions based on incomplete information that, in the end, turned out to be wildly off-base. We were repeatedly told there was a "there" there before anyone bothered to check what was there. The latest attempt to keep the IRS scandal alive by National Review and the Wall Street Journal exhibits those same traits: accusing the IRS and the Federal Election Commission of inappropriately colluding against conservative non-profits without actually knowing what happened.
The National Review reported on July 31 that "Embattled Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner and an attorney in the Federal Election Commission's general counsel's office appear to have twice colluded to influence the record before the FEC's vote in the case of a conservative non-profit organization," according to e-mails leaked to the publication be the House Ways and Means Committee. (At this point we should know better than to implicitly trust selectively leaked "scandal"-related emails from Congressional Republicans, but here we are.)
According to the conservative magazine, in 2009 a FEC official emailed Lerner inquiring after the tax exempt status of a group called American Future Fund, which was under investigation by the commission following a complaint by Minnesota Democrats over the group's alleged political activities. National Review refers to the group's tax status as "confidential taxpayer information" of the sort that the IRS is prohibited from sharing, though it's not immediately clear that this information is indeed "confidential." The IRS maintains a public list of organizations that have been granted tax exempt status, and tax-exempt groups are required by law to make public their "exemption applications, determination letters, and annual returns." The IRS issued a statement saying the email exchange indicates "that neither person wanted the IRS to provide the FEC with anything other than publicly available information," and Lerner's attorney told the Washington Post that "anyone in the world could get that information."
Fox News Sunday panelists ignored a poll showing a majority of Texans oppose a proposed abortion ban bill, instead pushing the baseless claim that the bill is supported by that state's public.
Republicans in Texas recently attempted to pass a bill during a special legislative session that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, which is unconstitutional under Supreme Court precedent, with lower courts recently striking down similar bans in two other states. The bill did not include exemptions for rape or incest and contained other restrictions that would force all but five clinics that provide abortions in the state to close. The bill was defeated after Texas Senator Wendy Davis filibustered the bill for 11 hours, causing the special session to expire before the bill was passed. But Governor Rick Perry said he would convene another special session on July 1 to pass the bill.
When discussing the second attempt to pass the bill, the June 30 Fox News Sunday panel focused solely on the bill's 20 week ban provision to baselessly claim that the bill would pass because it has the support of the Texas public. Washington Post conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin said Gov. Perry "is completely in tune with public opinion" on the bill. Fox News contributor Juan Williams backed Rubin, saying that polling shows "abortions after 20 weeks are not popular with anybody." Wall Street Journal editorial board member Kimberley Strassel said that the ban is "something that Americans actually have a great deal of unanimity on."
But a mid-June poll of Texas residents showed that a majority of Texans oppose the abortion ban bill. The poll, conducted by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, found that 51 percent of Texans opposed the bill. Sixty-three percent of respondents said that Texas has enough abortion restrictions already, and 52 percent said they think that abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Seventy-four percent, including a majority of Republicans and Independents, felt that private medical decisions about abortion should not be made by politicians.
Over the past month or so, columnists for major newspapers have gotten it into their heads that the "scandal" involving IRS agents in Cincinnati inappropriately scrutinizing conservative non-profit groups can be traced back to President Obama. According to these professional pundits who are paid very well to fill column space for their newspapers' print and online editions, the anti-Tea Party vibes Obama put out were picked up on by the IRS bureaucrats, who were then subconsciously impelled to exact retribution on the president's political enemies.
It turns out that this theory of presidential pseudo-telepathy was completely and fantastically wrong. Who could have predicted?
Newly revealed IRS documents show that the agency's targeting efforts were also aimed at progressive groups, medical marijuana groups, organizations focused on Middle East policy -- not just conservative and Tea Party groups.
This is a big problem for columnists like Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal, who devoted no fewer than three columns to the idea that the White House was "involved in the IRS's targeting of conservatives" because President Obama said ungenerous things about the Tea Party and created an "environment in which the IRS thought this was acceptable." Here's what she wrote on June 7:
The president of the United States spent months warning the country that "shadowy," conservative "front" groups -- "posing" as tax-exempt entities and illegally controlled by "foreign" players -- were engaged in "unsupervised" spending that posed a "threat" to democracy. Yet we are to believe that a few rogue IRS employees just happened during that time to begin systematically targeting conservative groups?
Turns out this scenario that Strassel thought so unbelievable was pretty much exactly what happened, except that the IRS was also targeting liberal groups. If she has an explanation for how Obama is responsible for that as well, we'd love to hear it.
The Wall Street Journal's Kimberley Strassel has written three columns in the last three weeks arguing that President Obama is culpable in the controversy over the IRS scrutinizing conservative non-profit groups because his public rhetoric sent signals to tax agency bureaucrats directing them to target his political opponents. We've taken to calling this phenomenon "Bureaucrat Whispering." Strassel has been its chief evangelist, and the theory has caught on with conservatives who are eager to tie the president to the IRS controversy but can't demonstrate an actual link.
In the latest iteration, Strassel argues that it can't be a coincidence that the IRS issued its August 2010 "Be On The Lookout" (BOLO) document that singled out conservative non-profits for additional scrutiny at the same time Obama was campaigning against "conservative groups that they claimed were rigging the electoral system." The fact that the IRS initiated the process of providing this scrutiny of conservative groups five months before the BOLO document was issued -- and five months before Strassel's first example of Obama supposedly setting "the context in which the targeting happened" -- does much to undermine the allegation.
Per Strassel's June 7 column:
Perhaps the only useful part of the inspector general's audit of the IRS was its timeline. We know that it was August 2010 when the IRS issued its first "Be On the Lookout" list, flagging applications containing key conservative words and issues. The criteria would expand in the months to come.
What else was happening in the summer and fall of 2010? The Obama administration and its allies continue to suggest the IRS was working in some political vacuum. What they'd rather everyone forget is that the IRS's first BOLO list coincided with their own attack against "shadowy" or "front" conservative groups that they claimed were rigging the electoral system.
Contrary to Strassel's assessment, there was one other useful tidbit in the inspector general's report: the timeline that identified "Around March 1, 2010" as the time when a manager at the IRS' office in Cincinnati "asked a specialist to search for other Tea Party or similar organizations' applications in order to determine the scope of the issue." That targeting began months before Strassel's first example of Obama sending secret nasty vibes to the IRS: an August 9, 2010, speech at a Democratic National Committee fundraising event.
In case you haven't been following, the hot new right-wing narrative is that President Obama, despite not having any provable connection to the IRS's inappropriate targeting of conservative non-profit groups, is nonetheless culpable because he exerts subtle influence over low-level bureaucrats which leads them to act out against conservatives and the Tea Party. The chief proponent of this theory has been the Wall Street Journal editorial page -- specifically, Journal editorial board member Kimberley Strassel, who has devoted her last two weekly columns to Bureaucrat Whispering.
Her May 24 column can be viewed as Bureaucrat Whispering's apotheosis, as she argues that if the country really wants to "get to the bottom of the IRS scandal," it must look to the White House, which was not involved in the actual scandal:
None of this proves that Mr. Obama was involved in the IRS targeting of conservative nonprofits. But it does help explain how we got an environment in which the IRS thought this was acceptable.
The rise of conservative organizations (to match liberal groups that had long played in politics), and their effectiveness in the 2004 election (derided broadly by liberals as "swift boating"), led to a new and organized campaign in 2008 to chill conservative donors and groups via the threat of government investigation and prosecution. The tone in any organization--a charity, a corporation, the U.S. government--is set at the top.
This history also casts light on White House claims that it was clueless about the IRS's targeting. As Huffington Post's Howard Fineman wrote this week: "With two winning presidential campaigns built on successful grassroots fundraising, with a former White House counsel (in 2010-11) who is one of the Democrats' leading experts on campaign law (Bob Bauer), with former top campaign officials having been ensconced as staffers in the White House . . . it's hard to imagine that the Obama inner circle was oblivious to the issue of what the IRS was doing in Cincinnati." More like inconceivable.
And this history exposes the left's hollow claim that the IRS mess rests on Citizens United. The left was targeting conservative groups and donors well before the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling on independent political expenditures by corporations.
If the country wants to get to the bottom of the IRS scandal, it must first remember the context for this abuse. That context leads to this White House.
From the May 19 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:
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As of this writing, there is no indication that the IRS's inappropriate targeting of conservative political groups has any connection whatsoever to the White House. And some conservative talking heads are even acknowledging as much. But they're not letting that stop them from naming Barack Obama as the culpable party, arguing that the president is responsible due to his preternatural ability to bend the average bureaucrat to his maleficent will from afar.
It all started with RedState founder Erick Erickson, who wrote on May 15 that "Barack Obama never specifically asked that tea party groups and conservatives be targeted." But...
But by both his language and the "always campaigning" attitude of his White House, he certainly sent clear signals to Democrats with the power and ability to fight conservatives to engage as they could. Given his rhetoric against his political opponents, it is no wonder sympathetic Democrats in the Internal Revenue Service harassed and stymied conservative groups and, though little mentioned, pro-Israel Jewish groups and evangelical groups.
"President Obama did not have to tell the IRS specifically to harass conservative, evangelical, and Jewish groups who might oppose him," Erickson observed. "His rhetoric on the campaign trail and in the permanent campaign of the White House operations made clear what he wanted."
Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member Kimberley Strassel misrepresented the win-loss record of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in court in order to suggest the Obama administration's environmental rulemaking is frequently illegal.
In an April 9 column, Strassel attempted to smear President Obama's nominee for EPA Administrator, the highly qualified and widely regarded Gina McCarthy, with the accusation that she shared blame for an alleged "embarrassing string of [legal] defeats" suffered by the Obama administration while serving as the senior EPA official in charge of regulating air pollution. From the WSJ:
[C]ritics have also started to take note of the embarrassing string of defeats the courts have recently dealt the agency regarding rules it issued in Mr. Obama's first term. Those judicial slapdowns are making a mockery of former Obama EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's promise in 2009 to restore the agency's "stature" with rulemaking that "stands up in court."
This past year alone has proven a banner year for EPA rebukes[.]
Mrs. McCarthy--who has spent four years as EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation--was nominated precisely because she shares Mrs. Jackson's aggressive view of the EPA's authority. With the administration now looking to push the EPA boundaries even further on climate, expect senators to grill Mrs. McCarthy on why she believes those coming rulemaking procedures will fare any better in court. A number of senators are particularly focused on this question, since it is their authority Mr. Obama is usurping in having the EPA unilaterally implement a climate program.
But Strassel - like influential House Republicans - misrepresents the record of the Obama EPA in court, especially in the area of Clean Air Act rulemaking, which McCarthy oversaw. As opposed to the win-loss record of the Republican EPA under George W. Bush, the Obama administration has been highly successful in defending its Clean Air Act actions in court.
The Wall Street Journal's Kimberley Strassel is claiming that newly-minted Interior secretary nominee Sally Jewell is part of the "environmental fringe," suggesting she is hostile to business and was chosen by President Obama to "kill traditional jobs." In fact, she boasts a wealth of business experience, and her support of national parks conservation bolsters a multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation industry that sustains millions of jobs.
Strassel dismissed Jewell as an "activist" who will "Lock up land, target industries, [and] kill traditional jobs," which she exemplified as mining, logging and farming. Strassel pointed to REI as an example of a company "on the radical extreme" because it has supported rules such as the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which safeguards National Forest lands from road construction and logging, and criticized the National Parks Conservation Association, on whose board Jewell serves, for its "efforts to kill jobs."
But Jewell's conservation efforts have helped support the multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation industry. According to a 2012 report by the Outdoor Industry Association, an industry trade group, Bureau of Economic Analysis data shows that outdoor recreation generates $646 billion in annual consumer spending, or nearly twice as much as the pharmaceuticals industry. According to the group's analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, outdoor recreation spending directly supports some 6.1 million jobs -- from retail jobs to park rangers to lodging operators -- nearly three times as many as the American Petroleum Institute claimed from the oil and gas industry in 2007:
Wall Street Journal editorial board member Kimberley Strassel claimed that President Obama has "moved the goalposts" by calling for ending the Bush tax cuts for the top two percent of taxpayers -- despite the fact that Obama has advocated for that policy in both his 2012 and 2008 presidential campaigns.
On the November 18 edition of Fox News Sunday, Strassel criticized Obama for supposedly insisting that tax rates on upper-income taxpayers must rise to the level they were during the Clinton administration as part of a deficit reduction plan, stating, "The president has now moved the goalposts and said, 'Well, it isn't just revenue, it has to be a specific kind.' " When host Chris Wallace pointed out that Obama "did mention this once or twice during the campaign," Strassel responded, "Yeah, he did, except for the question is, are you going to stick on what you campaigned on, or are you going to find a compromise in the end?"
As Wallace correctly noted, Obama regularly advocated ending the Bush tax cuts for wealthier taxpayers during the campaign, which contradicts Strassel's assertion that Obama "moved the goalposts." A July 9 USA Today article, for instance, reported that "In a White House ceremony, Obama said lower tax rates should end for Americans making more than $250,000 a year." Obama is continuing to advocate the same position: Politico reported on November 17 that Obama "repeated his call Saturday for Congress to extend the Bush-era middle-class tax cut without delay" and urged Congress not to "hold the middle class hostage while Congress debates tax cuts for the wealthy."
Obama, in fact, has been advocating the end of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy long before the 2012 campaign:
Further, contrary to Strassel's suggestion that Obama's continued advocacy for ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy precludes him from reaching "a compromise in the end," Obama has said he's "open to new ideas" if another solution achieves his goals. The Associated Press reported on November 14: "Asked if he viewed it as a deal-breaker if Republicans refused to allow the top tax rate to revert to 39 percent from the current 36 percent, [Obama] said, 'I just want to emphasize I am open to new ideas if the Republican counterparts or some Democrats have a great idea for us to raise revenue, maintain progressivity, make sure the middle class isn't getting hit, reduces our deficit.'"
From the October 13 edition of Fox News' Journal Editorial Report:
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Following the Obama campaign's ad highlighting Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, right-wing media are hysterically calling the ad an attack on private equity and even "an attack on capitalism" itself. But the ad clearly and specifically targets Romney's own work at Bain Capital -- which Romney and his campaign have repeatedly touted as crucial experience for dealing with the economy -- not private equity or capitalism as a whole.