This Scandal Is Different

As news about the IRS scandal continues to circulate, more than a few Democrats have tried to spin it by saying the IRS has done this before at the behest of a sitting president. More often than not Richard Nixon is mentioned as one who used the IRS to go after 'enemies'. Mentioned less often by Democrats are LBJ, JFK and FDR, all of whom used the IRS against their political adversaries. But as Peggy Noonan writes, those were different times and the targets weren't on the same level as those targeted by the IRS lately. This time around the IRS abuse was more blatant and cut a wider swath.

I got an email last night that had the effect of a clarifying conversation. It was from a smart friend who works in government. He understood the point I was trying to make about how the current IRS scandal is different from previous ones and more threatening to the American arrangement. I had written that this scandal isn’t a discrete event in which a president picks up a phone and tells someone in the White House to look into the finances of some steel industry executives, or to check out the returns of some guy on an enemies list.

But my friend got to the essence. He wrote, “The left likes to say, ‘Watergate was worse!’ Watergate was bad—don’t get me wrong. But it was elites using the machinery of government to spy on elites. . . . It’s something quite different when elites use the machinery of government against ordinary people. It’s a whole different ball game.”


In previous IRS scandals it was the powerful abusing the powerful—a White House moving against prominent financial or journalistic figures who, because of their own particular status or the machineries at their disposal, could pretty much take care of themselves. A scandal erupts, there are headlines, and then people go on their way. The dreadful thing about this scandal, what makes it ominous, is that this is the elites versus regular citizens. It’s the mighty versus normal people. It’s the all-powerful directors of the administrative state training their eyes and moving on uppity and relatively undefended Americans.

It is this which makes Watergate seem like a mere small-time scandal in comparison to what has happened on Obama's watch. This time around it was ordinary American citizens who were targeted, people who had done no wrong with limited means to defend themselves or to seek redress from the very government that targeted them. The full weight of a corrupt government agency came down upon people who disagreed with the present administration. All of this was done in an effort to silence them.

It is this which stirs outrage and anger against the IRS and the Obama Administration. This scandal is different on many levels, the biggest of which was its scope and targets. Is it any wonder trust in government has reached its lowest level in decades?