Column: IRS Scandal Holds More Promise for Republicans Than Benghazi

Republicans in Congress are so hungry for scalps, they just can’t leave well enough alone. The scandal engulfing the Internal Revenue Service is a story that’s playing to their benefit. Monday, after having the weekend to think about it, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida puffed himself up and called on the president to “demand the IRS commissioner’s resignation, effectively immediately.”

Only one problem: The position of IRS commissioner is currently vacant. (Rubio’s spokesman later clarified he was referring to the acting commissioner.)

Chalk up his confusion to Obama Derangement Syndrome, which afflicts Republicans as acutely as Bush Derangement Syndrome once did Democrats. When you are in a hole, the saying goes, stop digging. The corollary is that when you’re on top, don’t pile on.

What happened at the IRS is significant, easily understood by a distracted public and being taken seriously by President Barack Obama. What happened in Benghazi — the other scandal Republicans are obsessed with — is none of the above. The differing ways the president is treating the two stories says a lot about the state of Washington scandals.

With Benghazi, Obama takes the Republicans’ second go-round at scandal-making personally but not seriously. He’s still bristling over their treatment of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was said to be his first choice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. After Rice became the target of criticism last year for her Sunday-morning recital of the administration’s talking points about the scandal, she was forced to withdraw her name from consideration.

That’s why Obama was so sarcastic — as close to ridicule or anger as he generally gets — talking about the latest congressional hearings, saying the Republicans’ theory of the case “defies logic.” If the president were worried, he wouldn’t be baiting the Republicans he has been taking out to dinner for the past two months.

The White House has also engaged in a little stonewalling, which only raises Republican suspicions. Last week, Press Secretary Jay Carney defended his characterization of the changes to the talking points as “stylistic.” Hardly. Yes, the changes reflected a tug of war between the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, but everyone knows the White House is more powerful than both and gets the final word.

Benghazi’s not nothing. People died. Yet it’s hard to turn it into a sustainable political scandal when a prominent Republican such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says there wasn’t a way for the military to have saved the diplomatic compound from an attack last September. Not to mention that Republicans themselves have blocked the spending of more money to increase security at dangerous posts.

So Republicans are turning their focus on the IRS. They must know what I have learned in my polling: When I ask about Benghazi whenever I go home to Pennsylvania, I get no reaction. I’m sure there will be no shortage of opinion when I mention the IRS.

At the same time, this scandal at — let me get this on the record — my favorite federal agency may not be as damaging to the president as Republicans expect. The IRS was doing what it should have been doing, but in a very stupid way. It will help that the stupidity, and any Benghazi-type cover-up that took place, happened under the IRS’s last permanent commissioner, and that this commissioner was appointed by President George W. Bush.

What the IRS was doing was, at long last, bringing scrutiny to under-scrutinized groups that are classified under the tax code as “social welfare” organizations but are basically engaged in partisan politics. IRS investigators essentially took a Google shortcut, asking for more information from any group with “tea party” or “patriot” in its name. They did not have a similar shortcut for liberal groups equally likely to have engaged in inappropriate political activity, although surely there were search terms they could have come up with.

Since the groups being profiled were the very ones congressional Republicans fear most, the program quickly got another kind of scrutiny: from congressional Republicans. The then commissioner, Douglas Shulman, was called before Congress in March 2012 to answer for the program. He stonewalled. Now Republicans are calling for a special investigation, since his resignation is a little beside the point.

There really isn’t much of an argument to be had about what happened at the IRS — the president himself twice called it “outrageous” at Monday’s press conference. The question is how the president and congressional Republicans will manage the fallout.

For Obama, the risk is that the scandal undermines one of the central goals of his administration, which is to rebuild faith in the federal government. Sure, no one likes the IRS, present company excluded. But the IRS is the one federal agency that touches every U.S. household. If the president wants Americans to be able to trust their government more, and he does, then he needs the IRS to be beyond reproach.

Republicans have an easier task: ginning up outrage over the IRS. They just have to be careful not to make too many calls for the resignation of officials who don’t exist.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.