IRS Scandals: Sure They're Bad, But They Won't Impact the 2014 Elections

Two weeks after Barack Obama lectured the 2013 graduating class of Ohio State University to “reject the voices” who “warn that tyranny is just around the corner” as “cynics,” multiple scandals have erupted in Washington that are making the cynics look pretty damn prescient — and the Obama administration downright sinister.

The dust cloud of collateral damage from the scandals concerning alleged severe privacy abuses by the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice has not yet settled, but even liberal pundits and comedians acknowledge that these are Big Freakin’ Deals. In fact, it’s a safe bet that somewhere, at this very moment, a Republican consultant is crafting an attack ad, complete with Orwellian homages to Obama-as-Big Brother. But even though these issues are putting the Obama administration and Democratic Party on the defensive at this moment, they will — rightly or not — probably cause little long-lasting damage in the 2014 midterm elections.

Why? Because while the AP and IRS scandals are surely a political blow to the head for Democrats, the body politic has an equally problematic cranial injury — acute political amnesia — that will make it all but impossible for Republicans to use this week’s scandals beyond short-term fund-raising drives. 

A few examples: In case anyone was paying attention (or was but has already forgotten), just last week Mark Sanford, despite a rather public extramarital scandal,  managed to resurrect his career from the dead and win a South Carolina special congressional election. Anthony Weiner is somehow back on Twitter and is mulling a bid for mayor of New York City, and Newt Gingrich apparently has the political credibility to be chosen for the new Crossfire. The 24-hour news industry, for its part, is all too happy to support our collective memory failure, as it thrives on always keeping us locked in with the Next Big Distraction.

The result of this political amnesia is that for Americans, news events of any kind have a notoriously short life span, and it rarely pays to continue beating a political horse once it's dead, lest you come across as a zealot. By 2014, the AP-IRS horse will probably be dead. Furthermore, Republicans in the House and Senate can hardly protest the IRS and AP scandals too much for too long, lest Democrats playing defense drag Republicans’ own Orwellian skeletons from the Bush administration's closet yet again (wireless phone tapping, the Patriot Act, IRS investigations of the NAACP).

That’s not to say that the AP and IRS scandals are purely paper tigers. These civil-liberties violations will only cement pre-existing conservative disdain for the president. In particular, the IRS’s targeting of pro-Tea Party groups will, with some justification, provide post-hoc vindication for those groups’ predilections to paranoia. And far-left, civil-libertarian liberals will be and ought to be outraged as well. But thus far, the GOP has failed to provide candidates to whom disaffected liberals can turn.

In fact, the real danger these scandals pose for Democrats will probably be in 2016, not the 2014 midterms. As civil-liberties-focused millennials’ share of the electorate grows in major elections, the Obama administration’s continued privacy breaches could damage the Democratic Party’s affinity with young voters.

There is one very important assumption in my argument — that Obama himself is never actually implicated in the ordering of the AP wiretapping or the IRS actions against conservative groups. If he can personally manage to remain above the fray, as he is struggling hard to do at this moment, then these scandals will merely be two issues amongst many come November 2014. Otherwise, well, some memories are so scarring they might just take two years to forget.