Sometimes when you’re writing part of a column you keep getting close to the meaning of what you want to say but you don’t quite get there, the full formulation of the idea eludes you. Then two days later, relaxing in conversation with friends, the thought comes to you whole, and you think: That’s what I meant to say. That’s what I was trying to get.
This week I had one of those moments. I kept trying, the paragraph kept not quite working, the deadline came.
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.”
That’s exactly what I meant.
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.
That’s what makes this scandal different, and why if it’s not stopped now it will never stop. Because every four years you can get yourself a new president and a new White House, but you won’t easily get yourself a whole new administrative state. It’s there, it’s not going away, not anytime soon. If it isn’t forced back into its cage now, and definitively, it will prowl the land hungrily forever.
One more thing.
One of the reasons a lot of people in New York and Washington are not deeply distressed by the IRS targeting of conservative groups is that they have it in their heads that it only involved the tea party and the tea party is full of nuts, weirdoes and radicals whose discouragement wouldn’t be a grave national loss. It’s not only tea-party groups that were targeted, of course, but the IRS was only too happy to get the idea out there that it was. But if you’re the kind of person who thinks Tea Party people are low and extreme, that they’re the kind of people who’d hurt our country, take a few minutes to look at this. It’s a website that will take you to videos of a town hall meeting of the SouthWest Cincinnati Tea Party. It was held Wednesday night. Its subject was “IRS Intimidation—Are You Next?”
Do those people really strike you as weird and radical? Do they seem destructive? They are normal citizens. And they feel besieged.