Dumbest IRS theory yet

A conservative columnist says extra scrutiny to Tea Party groups may have cost Mitt Romney the job of his dreams!

Published June 20, 2013 4:19PM (EDT)

Mitt Romney, at Bailey's Bubble ice cream in Wolfeboro, N.H.         (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Mitt Romney, at Bailey's Bubble ice cream in Wolfeboro, N.H. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

The American Enterprise Institute's James Pethokoukis isn't normally a far-right bomb-thrower. That's what makes his Thursday post on AEI's public policy blog -- "The asterisk president: Did the IRS's Tea Party suppression get Obama reelected?" -- so disappointing and dangerous.

Citing his AEI colleague Stan Veuger’s research finding that the Tea Party generated 3 to 6 million additional GOP votes in House races in the 2010 midterms, Pethokoukis suggests that it might have added an additional 5 to 8 million GOP votes in the 2012 election, “if the groups had continued to grow at the pace seen in 2009 and 2010.” Which they didn’t, Veuger claims,  due to the extra IRS scrutiny to the movement’s claiming tax-exempt status for its “social welfare” activities.

Since that would have overcome the 5 million vote margin won by President Obama, Pethokoukis writes, “right around now, Mitt Romney would be pushing hard his tax reform plan, and #44 would be launching the Obama Global Initiative.”

Call Dick Morris -- somebody finally found those white voters the White House suppressed!

Pethokoukis' sober conservative writing doesn't normally call to mind the work of the crackpot Morris, but there is so much wrong with his analysis it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, the surge in Tea Party groups’ applying for tax-exempt status didn’t start until 2011; the number actually dipped a bit in 2010, then it rose by a quarter in 2011, and doubled in 2012.  So the Tea Party contributed to the Democrats’ 2010 midterm “shellacking” before the spike in c-4 applications, and the greater scrutiny to such applications, even began.

There’s also plenty of evidence from polling that the Tea Party lost its luster, and its electoral support, between 2010 and 2012, due at least in part to the obstructionist whack-jobs it helped elect in those midterms. In fact, the decline in support was even steep in Tea Party dominated districts.  As early as the end of 2011, a Pew poll found that among the general public, 27 percent disagreed with the Tea Party while 20 percent agreed, an almost precise reversal from the previous year, when 27 percent said they agreed while 22 percent disagreed. Even in Tea Party-dominated congressional districts, 25 percent of people said they agreed with the Tea Party, while 23 percent disagreed, down from 2010, when 33 percent of people agreed with the Tea Party, and only 18 percent disagreed. If Pethokoukis wants to find a reason that the Tea Party vote either declined or plateaued in 2012, he should look at the Tea Party.

Finally: If unfettered Tea Party groups would have provided such a powerful ground game boost for Mitt Romney, but for heightened IRS scrutiny, doesn’t that prove the IRS was justified in at least asking for greater documentation of their claim that they were “social welfare” groups, not merely partisan political operations?

Of course, Pethokoukis is careful not to conclude that the IRS's Tea Party targeting cost Romney the election, noting the campaign had other problems, first among them Mitt Romney. But he doesn’t dismiss it, either, writing, “It sure makes for an intriguing 'what if' scenario — and a warning about what happens when government gets out of control.”

Right-wingers, most notably the birthers, have tried to put many asterisks alongside Obama’s name. Pethokoukis has never been known for trafficking in garbage. It’s disappointing that he’s starting now. Maybe AEI wants to join the Heritage Foundation in casting off the pretense of right-leaning research and empiricism for the fun of hyper-partisan trolling?

By Joan Walsh