For years, administration officials have used the power of the federal government to isolate their opponents. Meanwhile, the unionized employees who populate the IRS and other agencies across the country routinely take their cues from union bosses, whose political donations and speeches show their support for the White House. When it comes to rewarding friends and punishing enemies, the IRS is not alone…

The spread of the speech police under the Obama administration has long been apparent. We all saw the president’s reelection team using the politics of intimidation, with old-school “enemies lists” and explicit attacks on groups and other private citizens. At the same time, the administration has been extremely creative in employing throughout the federal government the sorts of intimidation tactics that were used at the IRS…

These tactics are straight out of the left-wing playbook: Expose your opponents to public view, release the liberal thugs and hope the public pressure or unwanted attention scares them from supporting causes you oppose.

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But it now turns out there may have suppression of the vote after all. “It looks like a lot of tea-party groups were less active or never got off the ground because of the IRS actions,” Wisconsin governor Scott Walker told me. “Sure seems like people were discouraged by it.”

Indeed, several conservative groups I talked with said they were directly impacted by having their non-profit status delayed by either IRS inaction or burdensome and intrusive questioning. At least two donors told me they didn’t contribute to True the Vote, a group formed to combat voter fraud, because after three years of waiting the group still didn’t have its status granted at the time of the 2012 election. (While many of the targeted tea-party groups were seeking to become 501(c)(4)s, donations to which are not tax-deductible, True the Vote sought to become a 501(c)(3).) This week, True the Vote sued the IRS in federal court, asking a judge to enjoin the agency from targeting anyone in the future.

Cleta Mitchell, True the Vote’s lawyer, says we’ll never know just how much political activity was curtailed by the IRS targeting.

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If we give the president the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows the truth is going to come out, the question remains: Does the administration appoint the special prosecutor sooner or later? The calculus inside the White House is how to best protect the president’s political interests. They have two options. They could delay the appointment and let more of the story develop, weather the ugly piecemeal disclosures, give the players time to get their stories straight and lawyer-up and hope Republicans continue their overreach, giving the whole affair a nutty partisan patina. Or, they could accelerate the appointment of a special prosecutor, thereby slowing the congressional inquiries and giving Jay Carney some relief from his daily embarrassing routine by supplying him with the escape hatch of not being allowed to comment on matters associated with the special prosecutor’s ongoing investigation. Not to mention, the White House all the while could blast the appointed counsel as a partisan ideologue à la the hatchet job that was done on Ken Starr.

Anyway, if the president is innocent, he will end up needing and wanting a special prosecutor sooner rather than later. If he and his White House already have too much to hide, then they must clam up, cry partisanship and hope their allies on the Hill and in the media have the stamina for the long, hard slog ahead.

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The second reason to bring in a special prosecutor is that it’s the surest way to get answers the public might trust. The Republicans are not so much looking for “the truth” as they are looking for a resonant story line – whether it is Mitch McConnell’s theme that Obama has begotten “a culture of intimidation” (not that anybody seems very intimidated, least of all the Tea Party) or confirmation that Government Is The Problem, or the more plausible argument that the White House is too often AWOL. The Democrats, for their part, are not so much looking for “the truth” as trying to change the subject: it’s about the flood of special interest money from undisclosed donors, it’s about underfunding of the government, it’s about the desperate need for tax reform. What it’s about is this: at least one I.R.S. outpost engaged in behavior that was at best stupid and at worst alarming. It’s about shoring up America’s trust in its government, and in this president.

The third reason for a special counsel is that the government has serious business to conduct, and the scandal circus on Capitol Hill is a terrible distraction. Oversight, so-called, is what we do these days instead of passing a budget, reforming the immigration system, or processing the countless government and judicial appointments awaiting confirmation. Handing off the I.R.S. problem to a special counsel and putting congressional hearings on hold would allow everyone, including journalists, to turn their attention to all that unfinished business.

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The moment a prosecutor — special or otherwise — takes over, the public flow of information stops. All witnesses will claim that the pendency of a criminal investigation means they cannot discuss the matter “on advice of counsel.” They will cease cooperating with congressional investigators. The prosecutor will claim that grand-jury secrecy rules bar comment about the expansive investigation (a claim the government routinely makes, even though the rules actually bar comment only by the prosecutor, investigative agents, and grand jurors — not the witnesses).

Public disclosure should be the goal here. It is the one thing that has driven the IRS story to this point. Public disclosure of the shockingly intrusive harassment of the president’s political opponents, the prohibitive legal and regulatory expenses imposed on ordinary people for merely exercising their right to participate in the political process, is what has broken through the administration’s Obamedia fortress. Yet public disclosure is precisely what would be lost if Congress were to punt its oversight responsibilities to a special counsel…

There will be plenty of time later to prosecute wrongdoers. The statute of limitations on most federal crimes is five years. At the moment, what’s called for is a public reckoning for the IRS: an investigation designed to shine the light of day on what actually happened, who was involved (whether or not they are criminally culpable as opposed to just sleazy), who should be pressured to resign — or should be removed — from public office, and how government revenue collection should be restructured to ensure it cannot be used as a partisan weapon. That kind of investigation would demand the media’s continuing attention. It can be done only by Congress — and would be best done, as would the Benghazi investigation, by a select committee that issues subpoenas and holds public hearings.

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Unlike his predecessor, Obama was supposed to be smart. He was supposed to be ethical and judicious in his use of executive power. More than anything, he was supposed to “turn the page” on the ugly chapter of American history known as the Bush era.

As new revelations come out on the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, the IRS targeting of conservative groups and the Department of Justice’s war against journalists, the irony for Obama is that the less he’s directly implicated, the deeper indictment it is for his governing political philosophy.

After all, if a president were simply incompetent or dishonest, it would be much easier to argue that a change in leadership could lead to better results. But if Obama is a bright, honest and decent man, yet the government has gotten so big that low-level bureaucrats can go rogue and choose to target groups based on their ideologies, then there’s a much more fundamental problem.

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“It’s clear the government is too large … nobody knows what’s going on… and you’re going to take all these people who don’t know what’s going on and put them in charge of the largest expansion of government in history? It’s hard to imagine what’s going to happen, but it’s probably not going to be good.”

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