Say, the Obama White House is looking particularly Nixonian these days, huh?

James Poulos isn’t the first to draw notice to the historical resonance of an unexplained gap in records in the middle of a probe about abuse of power in the executive branch. Michael Ramirez also made the same point yesterday in his editorial cartoon for Investors Business Daily:



Poulos provides a cautionary voice to both Republicans and Democrats in this instance. Just because the e-mails are missing doesn’t mean that malice and corruption have been proven — but it certainly looks that way, and Democrats take a big risk in continuing to call this a “phony scandal” now:

Reminiscent of nothing so much as Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods’s infamous selective erasures of her boss’s tapes, today’s sought-after communiqués are, we are told, victim of a crashed computer and a failed hard drive, both belonging to Lois Lerner, the chief of the IRS tax-exempt office at the center of the controversy.

And in good Nixonian style, it’s not just Lerner whose emails have gone unaccounted for. Six more IRS employees connected to the original targeting outrage have records the agency cannot submit to Congress—including Nikole Flax, chief of staff to the man eventually fired for his role in targeting conservative groups while serving as acting commissioner.

Best of all, from a salacious standpoint, congressional investigators now know that the IRS kept the missing emails a secret since perhaps February of this year. Lies! Omissions! A cover-up! The possibilities are endless, and weirdly reassuring in these disjointed and murky times. After such a long drumbeat of bad news seemingly “from the future”—from drones and NSA surveillance to fresh chaos in Iraq—the classic, petty terrain of the IRS scandal returns us to comfortably familiar ground. …

Fortunately for the GOP, Americans have an instinctive appreciation for the seriousness of the charges facing the IRS. Putative scandals like the Benghazi incident strike many of us as not just farfetched but almost, as they put it inSpinal Tap, “best left unsolved.” The realm of foreign policy is a realm of mystery for most Americans, a place where government schemes will never be fully revealed and the alternative to trust is a fruitless journey into rabbit-hole speculation.

The possibility of being abused by the IRS, however, requires no such paranoia. Perhaps few of us believe the IRS is really after us in particular; the more general idea that the IRS treats us unequally, in part for political reasons, strikes at the core of reasonable, mainstream distrust of government. After all, the power to tax is the power to destroy. If there’s one place we’d expect to find government harassment carried out under our noses, it’d be the IRS, which harasses us year in and year out anyway.

The foreign-policy crises and failure may not resonate with many Americans who feel distanced from those experiences. That cannot be said for the IRS, the ubiquitous presence that worries all Americans and has a reputation for harsh enforcement along the guilty-until-proven-innocent paradigm. In my column today for The Week, I also argue that the disappearance of records from an agency that would hardly tolerate such excuses from any other American is the kind of smoking hypocrisy that will keep this scandal alive:

This gives the scandal new and legitimate legs, for a couple of reasons. First, despite having demanded these records from the IRS for over a year, the agency waited until now (and in a Friday afternoon document dump, no less) to inform Congress of the supposed loss of emails. That makes it look very suspicious, and put together with Lerner’s refusal to testify, even more so.

The second reason is that the IRS is the one agency that demands everyone else keep spotless records for seven years or more on their returns. Now we find out that they’re only keeping their own documentation for six months? For a nation founded on the rule of law and equality under it, this retention for thee but no for we will likely offend a lot more people than extra scrutiny for conservative tax-exempt applicants did, and the lame dog ate my homework excuse will offend the rest.

Sadly, the rule of law seems to be the biggest fantasy of all in the case of the IRS targeting scandal and the abuse of power it represents.

Don’t expect this to go away soon. The IRS may not be hiding something, but it’s difficult to see how a cover-up would differ in any way from what we’ve been seeing from the IRS..