So last week, while most of the country was talking about football or fears of a government shutdown, Rasmussen released a poll that should worry everyone — but especially incumbent Democrats in Congress. According to Rasmussen’s survey, most Americans think the IRS broke the law by targeting Tea Party groups for harassment, but few expect it to be punished. Fifty-three percent think the IRS broke the law by targeting the Tea Party and other conservative groups like the voter-integrity outfit True The Vote; only 24% disagreed. But only 17% think it is even somewhat likely that anyone will be charged, while 74% think that criminal charges are unlikely.
So a majority of Americans think that government officials who exercise an important trust broke the law, but only a very small number think anything will be done to punish them.
There are a couple of lessons to draw from this. One is bad for the country in general, but the other is bad for congressional Democrats.
The lesson for the country is that trust in the government is very low. (In another Rasmussen poll, 70% think that government and big business often work together against consumers and investors. According to Gallup, trust in government is lower than during Watergate.) But it’s worse than that.
Believing that government officials break the law is one thing; believing that they face no consequences when they’re caught and it becomes public is another. Not only is this a sort of “broken windows” signal to other bureaucrats — hey, you can break the law and get away with it — but it’s particularly damaging where the IRS is concerned.
America’s tax system, despite the feared IRS audit, is fundamentally based on voluntary compliance. If everyone starts cheating, there aren’t enough IRS agents to make a dent. Beyond taxes, that’s true regarding compliance with the law in general. Moral legitimacy is what makes honest people obey the law even when they can get away with breaking it. Undermine that and you get a country like, say, Italy, where tax evasion is a national sport.
Meanwhile, there’s another bit of bad news buried in that poll, this time for Democrats. The bad news is that a majority of Americans thinks the IRS broke the law even though the news media have consistently downplayed the scandal. But as the scandal has dragged on for months, word has filtered out anyway. Come 2014, the government’s damaged brand will reflect poorly on members of the president’s party, regardless of media efforts to protect them.
Beyond that, the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has begun calling President Obama “President Asterisk,” saying that IRS efforts to weaken his opposition in the run-up to the 2012 election devalue Obama’s victory the way illegal steroid use devalues an athlete’s record-book standing. Taranto writes that this puts Obama in a situation that is in some ways worse than Nixon after Watergate: “We now know that government corruption — namely IRS persecution of dissenters — was a factor in Obama’s re-election.
To be sure, Obama himself has not, at least so far, been implicated in the IRS wrongdoing as Nixon ultimately was in Watergate. On the other hand, Nixon’s re-election victory was so overwhelming that no one could plausibly argue Watergate was a necessary condition for it. The idea that Obama could not have won without an abusive IRS is entirely plausible.”
Of course, the press hated Nixon, while it is still doing everything it can to protect Obama. But, as we see, word filters out. Stay tuned.
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Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee and the author ofThe New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. This article was published in USAToday.