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.