WASHINGTON — Republicans think the Internal Revenue Service controversy is the magic weapon for beating up Democrats, because nothing resonates with the American public like potential IRS abuse.
Revelations that the agency targeted conservative groups fit neatly into the narrative Republicans have been trying to build for years, that government keeps getting bigger, scarier and more intrusive.
There are risks for Republicans.
They could overplay the hand. Some Republicans have suggested President Barack Obama won’t finish his term, even though the president has not been shown to be directly involved in either the IRS incident or any of the controversies dogging his administration this week.
Also, the tea party movement, which generally supports Republicans but is often more outspoken than mainstream party officials, is newly invigorated – and beyond the control of party regulars.
Still, the big government mantra plays well, and Republicans already have gotten lots of political mileage from it. They used it effectively in 2010 to rail against the new health care law, when they won control of the House of Representatives. They screamed big government as they fought higher taxes and thwarted the effort to require gun buyer background checks. Add to that the recent controversies over what really happened in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed in a terror attack, and the Justice Department secretly gaining access to Associated Press phone call data.
Now comes the tax scandal. “The IRS is something people already don’t like, and everyone knows the IRS,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Like many other Republicans, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the likely party nominee for governor, summed up the issue: “Recent events have confirmed our worst fears about an intrusive and expansive government in Washington, D.C.”
The IRS mess has clearly energized the party’s grassroots, notably tea party loyalists, the key target of the agency’s probes. The movement was seen as losing some punch since its 2010 high point, when it was instrumental in electing many of the 87 House Republican freshmen.
Now the energy has returned. “It vindicates the movement. It shows that we were right in what we were saying about the IRS using its power,” said Jenny Beth Martin, Tea Party Patriots co-founder and chief executive officer.
So far, the movement is in sync with mainstream Republicans in fighting a common enemy: big government headed by Obama.
“It shows that what we’ve been saying about the need for constitutionally limited government is a valid concern on our part. We need a government small enough to do its job and small enough that we can actually trust it,” Martin said.
Republican leaders are eagerly joining the chorus, reciting the evidence day after day, no matter how questionable. They are threatening to subpoena former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to testify about her role before and after the Benghazi attack. They ask questions like that of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, after the temporary head of the IRS resigned Wednesday: “My question isn’t about who’s going to resign. My question is who’s going to jail over this scandal?”
But such talk also tiptoes into dangerous political territory.
The tea party movement is a loosely organized band of activists, and Democrats argue that its re-emergence ultimately will mean trouble for Republicans.
“Its policies and the politics of confrontation and gridlock . . . are out of favor with the American people,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Republicans also have another potential threat: Themselves.
“People may be starting to use the I-word before long,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., referring to impeachment. At a news conference Thursday, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., surrounded by tea party leaders, said that when she goes home, “There isn’t a weekend that hasn’t gone by that someone says to me, ‘Michele, what in the world are you all waiting for in Congress? Why aren’t you impeaching the president?’”
A lot of Republicans are trying to squelch such talk. “I will even give the president the benefit of the doubt on some of these things,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. In the House, Reps. Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Sander Levin, D-Mich., jointly wrote the IRS expressing outrage.
At this point, though, the array of controversies, particularly the IRS issue, is a godsend for vulnerable GOP candidates and Republican leaders.
“It hits at the heart of who we are as a people, and why we fight for justice and fear such a large, powerful government that clearly has become too big to manage,” said House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, seen as susceptible to conservative challenges as he seeks re-election next year, appeared Thursday at Bachmann’s news conference.
“This is runaway government at its worst. Who knows who they’ll target next,” McConnell warned before leaving quickly.
Democrats already faced trouble holding onto a Senate majority next year. They have to defend 21 seats, while Republicans have 14 to defend. All eight races considered tossups are seats held by Democrats, most in the South or the rural West.
Already, potentially tough Democratic challengers in West Virginia and South Dakota have opted not to even make the race. Earlier this week, former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a South Dakota Democrat who three times had won the state’s at-large House seat, decided not to run. Former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds is now seen as a strong favorite.
In Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina and Iowa, the IRS controversy could make it even harder for incumbent Democrats. They already are fighting the big government label, and though their statements of outrage about the IRS scandal are often stronger than those of the White House, Republicans at the moment have gained a fresh, powerful talking point.
Democrats think the improving economy will ultimately decide the political fates next year. But for now, Republicans are joyful.
“These controversies unite the Republican factions,” said Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report. “The one thing that can unite a party is a common enemy.”