Brilliant commentator and author Robert Shrum wrote in his weekly Daily Beast column that the Obama team is not guilty of scandal around the IRS debacle but incompetence. He provides an important insight into the mess and one that Democrats should read and learn. Usually it is not the issue itself in these situations that cause more problems but how it is handled.
I recognize that it's easier to criticize a battle plan from outside the combat zone. I also repeat that President Obama, his political advisers, and White House officials surely didn't instigate, direct, or countenance any IRS targeting of Tea Party or conservative groups. It would have been politically stupid, even suicidal—because it could have blown up in the midst of the 2012 campaign. And at the political level, Obama and his team have shown remarkable smarts since 2007—and as Mitt Romney could attest, a stunning capacity to survive and prevail. In the end, events and the evidence will lead to the overwhelming conclusion that IRS conduct in the Cincinnati field office is a quintessential incarnation of that portion of government that the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein called "stupid fumbling."
For the White House, there is no crime here, there is no scandal, no matter how feverishly, irresponsibly, or demagogically the GOP labors to concoct one. This is not a case of Nixonian indifference to the Constitution, the law, and the president's oath of office. But it does look like a reprise of Cartersque incompetence, increasingly so as we learn more about how the White House staff handled—or mishandled—a crisis they knew was coming.
White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler was told about the inspector general's pending IRS report on April 24. She didn't inform the president, supposedly to "shield" him. And at first, the White House claimed, she didn't tell anyone else either. That claim soon evaporated as the administration conceded that she had "briefed" Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough and other aides. Then the next shoe: other officials in the Counsel's office had known even sooner than Ruemmler. Then another: White House and Treasury staff had conferred about how to deal with the report.
House Speaker John Boehner's press secretary gleefully tweeted: "I can't wait until tomorrow's version of events." That says it all about a plainly hapless effort to protect the president—which instead seems likely to yield a prolonged inquisition into the interstices and tick tocks of what is now routinely referred to as a "scandal," distracting the White House and enthralling the Washington press corps day after day, and conceivably for months on end. GOP overreaching, as I've argued, may hurt the party in the 2014 midterms. But despite all the invocations of legal propriety—of not interfering with an ongoing investigation—it's hard to credibly contend that the White House strategy here, if you can even label it that, has been a model of crisis management.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has become a serial punching bag at the daily West Wing press briefings. He's been close to unflappable amid a storm of restatements, retractions, and inconsistencies. Nonetheless, he should never have been sent out there without being fully informed—and it's no excuse to suggest that all the facts weren't available or assembled yet. They were all known somewhere in the White House—or at the Treasury. The aides who had been briefed early on certainly hadn't forgotten that; they just forgot to tell Carney.
Shrum closes with:
I have no doubt that the president's outrage was genuine—that he was deeply angry. But the harsh words he did speak needed to be backed up, on the spot, by tough deeds. This was a time for some drama, Obama—for a White House fully committed to engage the issue, get out everything that was known, and pursue every conceivable remedy. Instead the information and decisions have come in dribs and drabs, as redrafts and corrections, propelling wave after wave of IRS stories.
There are now Republicans demanding a special counsel. It won't happen, and shouldn't. For now, Americans believe the president is telling the truth—and in a CNN poll, 55 percent agree that "IRS employees ... were acting on their own." Still, that's muted consolation for a president and a White House already facing the challenge of developing a fresh strategy for a season of unprecedented gridlock.
As anyone who reads my columns knows, I regard Barack Obama as an exceptional president of high achievement. But on the IRS story, there was systematic "fumbling" in the West Wing. I agree with Obama's former press secretary Robert Gibbs that "it's the responsibility of people inside ... who know that they have information or knowledge to go to Jay [Carney] and make his job easier." Indeed, they needed to do a much better job all around as the crisis gathered. And they will have to do it again, not just in all the faux scandals that will relentlessly run their course, but in great political battles ahead.
On the IRS, the course probably will be longer than it had to be. For the White House, the problem here resembles Carter, not Nixon. It isn't about crime; it's about competence. This president didn't do anything wrong. But the West Wing sure didn't do everything right.