Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson met online to chat about the IRS scandal. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Ramesh: I see what you did in your column this week, Margaret, signaling your high esteem for the IRS. An esteem I share! It’s best to stay on that particular agency’s good side, because it has awesome powers. Which is why its abuses are, as President Barack Obama said last night, "intolerable." And those abuses look worse the more we learn. It turns out that Democratic Senator Carl Levin had urged the IRS to go after specific, mostly conservative groups: He had a list. It turns out that the misconduct was not limited to one Cincinnati office, as was initially claimed. And it turns out that the IRS released confidential information to the media organization ProPublica. Who will audit the auditors?
Margaret: My admiration for the IRS has not flagged despite the drip-drip-drip of new information reminding us how awesome is the power of the tax collectors. This questionnaire that an aspiring 501(c)(4) group had to fill out is so daunting, few groups could have complied. It was far worse than a 1040, and who ever thought that form could be surpassed?
Ramesh: It is pretty hard to defend the questions that targeted groups were asked. What books is your group reading? What are your views about Israel? I think it is a little odd in the first place that the IRS is reviewing applications for 501(c)(4) status with an eye toward whether the group will obey the law in the future. It seems as though what it ought to do is let groups register and then review their behavior.
Margaret: What books you are reading could have been a short answer for some groups. Just kidding, Ramesh! Your team reads much more than mine. I was stopped by questions about all associations -- past, present or to come -- minutes of every meeting, and any relations, or in-laws, who might have ever, once, walked through the door.
I got a glimpse of the backstory last night. I was at dinner (I can't tell you where or with whom -- OK, it was in Georgetown, and you can guess from there) and about two-thirds of the guests were press. Whatever unexpressed resentment resided in their hearts about a slightly arrogant and high-handed White House staff spilled out. I am not in the White House press room every day, so I don't have tales of insult (or worse, being ignored). But lots of other folks did. There is no reservoir of good will left to call on. Every slight is now fresh. Members of the press corps feel they have legitimate reason, other than their own bruised egos, to call White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a doofus -- and so they are.
Ramesh: The administration has mishandled the IRS scandal, and it's not just Carney's fault. It was the president who said that it would be outrageous "if" the IRS had targeted conservative groups -- after the IRS had admitted it. This scandal is also a more general problem for this administration. Ten days ago the president gave a commencement speech at Ohio State University urging graduates not to view government as "some separate, sinister entity." Liberals prefer that people view government, as former Representative Barney Frank once put it, as just the name we use for the things we do together. The IRS scandal makes the government look more like, well, a separate, sinister entity -- and that can't help the party of government activism.
Margaret: I concede that the government is big. But I'm also in the Barney Frank camp: It's good. Democratic presidents rely on government being perceived as good, and that's especially important right now, as we watch Obamacare have its 1,000th repeal vote. As it rolls out now, every bad experience in your doctor's office is going to be blamed on Obama.
This past week also fits into the Rule of Three. If Benghazi, the IRS and the subpoenaing of AP reporters' phone records had all occurred separately, we couldn't go around saying Obama's second term was over. With three, any goodwill the president built up with his dinners and golf outings is erased.
One senator explained Obama's problem to me this way: "He never had to climb the greasy pole." He doesn't know how to flatter, to stroke, to send the equivalent of flowers when you don't have to. And then the killer point for me: Like the president, I'd prefer to be home every night having dinner with my kids, too. It's the business you've chosen, so buck up, Mr. President. Have another merlot with the speaker.
Ramesh: Of course if the pessimistic projections about Obamacare are right, then its implementation is going to make the public even more skeptical about government. The fact that it grants new powers to the IRS -- because it depends on the agency to enforce some of its least popular features -- won't help. Nor will the fact that proponents of the law, from the president down, made grand promises about its impact. Obamacare was supposed to lower premiums by $2,500 for the average family, for example.
I don't think the president's problem is primarily that he has poor relations with Democrats, let alone Republicans -- although that's true. It's the objective reality of the government he's presiding over that's the problem. The lack of schmoozing might eventually matter, though: If his poll numbers drop enough, he'll find out just how few friends he has in Washington.
Margaret: Obama may not actually need friends. With Republicans such as Representative Darrell Issa and Senator James Inhofe shouting "Watergate" and "impeachment," the president has good enemies.