WASHINGTON — At the end of a truly dismal week in his presidency, President Obama remains lucky in one crucial category: his opposition.
It has been only a matter of days since two scandals — the IRS harassment of conservative groups and the administration’s seizing of AP reporters’ phone records — have dropped into the Republicans’ lap. But instead of playing the public outrage to their advantage, Republicans have already begun overreaching, turning legitimate areas of inquiry into just some more partisan food fights. Consider Thursday morning’s circus on the east lawn of the Capitol, steps from the House chamber, where Republican lawmakers gathered with tea party leaders to declare their thoughts on the IRS scandal. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., mother of the House Tea Party Caucus, said her constituents are demanding “why aren’t you impeaching the president?”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he’s “quite worried” that the Obama administration will go through the medical records of the president’s political opponents.
Jenny Beth Martin, head of the Tea Party Patriots, supposed that “perhaps” the administration has used the IRS to “sway elections.” Another tea party leader characterized the developments as worse than Watergate, and another demanded the abolition of the IRS.
Then there was rookie Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, leader of the neo-McCarthyite wing of the GOP, who relayed to the national media the second-hand accusation that “confidential taxpayer records were handed over” by the IRS “to the co-chairman of President Obama’s presidential campaign.” He suggested this was evidence that “the federal government is being made to behave as if it is an arm of a political, partisan campaign apparatus.”
Chased down by reporters to explain this explosive allegation, Cruz said only that “I don’t know the facts beyond what I read” — and then sped off in a BMW 328. Think these characters don’t speak for Republican Party leaders? Well, consider the first person Bachmann called to the microphones: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “This is runaway government at its worst,” he proclaimed. “Who knows who they’ll target next?”
We do know who the Republicans are targeting. Politico reported that about a third of the House committees (there are 21) are currently investigating the Obama administration. And the influential Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote a letter to congressional Republicans Thursday urging them to focus on the Obama administration scandals and avoid policy issues that could distract from this singular focus. “It would be imprudent to do anything that shifts the focus from the Obama administration to the ideological differences within the House Republican Conference,” Heritage Action warned. “To that end, we urge you to avoid bringing any legislation to the House floor that could expose or highlight major schisms within the conference.” This, the group reasoned, “would give the press a reason to shift their attention away from the failures of the Obama administration.” Speaker John Boehner apparently didn’t need any convincing, for he had the House stage yet another symbolic vote Thursday on repealing Obamacare. At a news conference before that debate, Fox News’ Chad Pergram asked whether Boehner worried that probes of the Obama administration would cross “a line” and cause the sort of backlash that hit Republicans in 1998. “Listen,” Boehner replied, “when you are trying to seek the truth — and that is the goal, to seek the truth — there is no line.” And so Republicans, freed from lines, are turning justifiable inquiries into wild conspiracies. At her Thursday press conference, Bachmann said it is “more than reasonable” to ask whether the Obama administration will deny health care to people “based upon a person’s political beliefs or their religiously held beliefs.” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the administration’s actions “tend to confirm … that your government is targeting you, that your government is spying on you and that your government is lying to you.”
And, of course, there was Cruz’s “story” about the IRS turning over tax records “to the co-chairman of President Obama’s presidential campaign.”
The article in question was apparently from the conservative (and controversial) website Breitbart, which published what it called the “claim” of a group opposed to gay marriage that the IRS leaked its financials to the head of the Human Rights Campaign. The accusation was speculative and, even if true, the gay-rights leader wasn’t “the co-chairman” of Obama’s campaign but one of 35 people in that ceremonial role. These are relevant details — but easy to miss when you’re overreaching.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.