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McConnell takes more air from IRS scandal balloon

Associated Press

As the "controversy" surrounding IRS scrutiny of tax-exempt applications has unraveled, so too has the nature of the Republican allegations. Let's not lose sight of the initial gambit: the right wanted Americans to believe the White House used the tax agency to punish political rivals.

It's obviously difficult to take this argument seriously anymore, and each new allegation seems to be sillier than the last. It's left Republicans, eager to keep some semblance of "scandal" alive, repeating contradictory and incoherent talking points.

Today, though he probably intended to do the opposite, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) let a little more air out of the IRS balloon.

IRS agents were taking cues from union leaders when they decided to target the Tea Party, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell charged on Friday.

"When the head of the union that represents unionized IRS workers publicly vilifies the Tea Party, is it any wonder that members of her union would get caught targeting them?" the Kentucky Republican said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

First, McConnell really should do a better job at keeping up with new details. Earlier this week, transcripts were released of the interviews between IRS officials in Cincinnati and House Oversight Committee investigators, and they help detail how and why Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status saw their applications receive extra scrutiny. Shouldn't the Minority Leader -- or at a minimum, his staff -- have read this before giving a speech on the topic?

Second, and more important, is the fact that McConnell is moving the goalposts again, this time in a direction the right won't like -- if the Minority Leader is blaming unions, he's not blaming the Obama White House.

In fact, McConnell effectively ruled out White House involvement, which is yet another nail in the coffin of this entire story.

"There might be some folks out there waiting for a hand signed memo from President Obama to Lois Learner to turn up," the Republican leader said. "Do not hold your breath.... I am prepared to say, and did say today, that the president and his political allies encouraged this kind of bureaucratic overreach by their public comments, but that's quite different from saying they ordered it."

But for the last six weeks, Republicans have been heavily invested in saying they ordered it. Oh well.

McConnell did try one sly rhetorical move:

"Now we have an administration that's desperately trying to prove that nobody at the top was involved in any of this stuff, even as they hope that the media loses interest in this scandal and moves on."

And why is that sly? Jon Chait noted the effort to flip around the burden of proof:

Got that? Before Republicans were going to prove that Obama's administration was involved. All of the evidence suggests it wasn't. So now McConnell is framing the question as Obama trying to prove he wasn't involved. Which, of course, he can't. For that matter, McConnell can't prove that he didn't mastermind the IRS. You can't prove a negative.

Get past the goalpost moving, however, and McConnell was attacking the IRS story while subtly helping kill it. Chait added this is a "kind of covered retreat, signaling the IRS scandal's turn into a vague trope that conservatives use with other members of the tribe ... to signal some dark beliefs they don't need to back up."

And as Greg Sargent concluded, as the story is reduced to fact-free allegations that no longer have anything to do with the right's original targets, Republicans have reached a familiar comfort level: "McConnell can now drop all pretenses and speak directly to the base in language only they can understand."