Noam Scheiber shakes his head about the origins of the IRS-Tea Party scandal:
Fine—there’s no law against neurosis. But, to borrow a thought experiment from my colleague Alec MacGillis, consider all this from the perspective of the IRS’s Cincinnati office, which handles tax-exempt groups. You’re minding your own business in 2009 when you start to receive dozens of applications from right-leaning groups, applications you didn’t solicit and don’t require. You peruse a few of the applications and it looks like many of the groups, while claiming to be “social welfare” organizations, have an overtly political purpose, like backing candidates with specific ideological agendas. Suffice it to say, you don’t need an inquisitorial mind to decide the applications deserve careful vetting. One Tea Party activist from Waco, Texas, has complained that an IRS official told her he was “sitting on a stack of tea party applications and they were awaiting word from higher-ups as to how to process them.” The quote is intended to sound nefarious—an outtake from some vast left-wing conspiracy—but it’s actually perfectly straight-forward: The IRS was unexpectedly flooded by dodgy 501c4 applications and was at a loss over how to manage them.
So the crime here had nothing to do with “targeting” conservatives. The targeting was effectively done by the conservative groups themselves, when they filed their gratuitous applications. The crime, such as it is, was twofold. First, in the course of legitimately vetting questionable applications, the IRS appears to have been more intrusive than justified, asking for information about donors whose privacy it should have respected. This is unfortunate and intolerable, but not quite a threat to democracy.
Second, the IRS was tone deaf to how its scrutiny would look to the people being scrutinized, given that they all subscribed to the same worldview, and that they were already nursing a healthy persecution complex.
Meanwhile, the Tin Foil Hat crowd now has something that appears, at first glance, to be real government overreach for ideological reasons, and now the IRS will be even less likely to go after Astroturf groups.
This is what most people in the world call an "own goal."