Strassel: Conservatives Became Targets in 2008
by Kimberly A. Strassel
The White House insists President Obama is "outraged" by the "inappropriate" targeting and harassment of conservative groups. If true, it's a remarkable turnaround for a man who helped pioneer those tactics.
On Aug. 21, 2008, the conservative American Issues Project ran an ad highlighting ties between candidate Obama and Bill Ayers, formerly of the Weather Underground. The Obama campaign and supporters were furious, and they pressured TV stations to pull the ad—a common-enough tactic in such ad spats.
What came next was not common. Bob Bauer, general counsel for the campaign (and later general counsel for the White House), on the same day wrote to the criminal division of the Justice Department, demanding an investigation into AIP, "its officers and directors," and its "anonymous donors." Mr. Bauer claimed that the nonprofit, as a 501(c)(4), was committing a "knowing and willful violation" of election law, and wanted "action to enforce against criminal violations."
AIP gave Justice a full explanation as to why it was not in violation. It said that it operated exactly as liberal groups like Naral Pro-Choice did. It noted that it had disclosed its donor, Texas businessman Harold Simmons. Mr. Bauer's response was a second letter to Justice calling for the prosecution of Mr. Simmons. He sent a third letter on Sept. 8, again smearing the "sham" AIP's "illegal electoral purpose."
Also on Sept. 8, Mr. Bauer complained to the Federal Election Commission about AIP and Mr. Simmons. He demanded that AIP turn over certain tax documents to his campaign (his right under IRS law), then sent a letter to AIP further hounding it for confidential information (to which he had no legal right).
The Bauer onslaught was a big part of a new liberal strategy to thwart the rise of conservative groups. In early August 2008, the New York Times trumpeted the creation of a left-wing group (a 501(c)4) called Accountable America. Founded by Obama supporter and liberal activist Tom Mattzie, the group—as the story explained—would start by sending "warning" letters to 10,000 GOP donors, "hoping to create a chilling effect that will dry up contributions." The letters would alert "right-wing groups to a variety of potential dangers, including legal trouble, public exposure and watchdog groups digging through their lives." As Mr. Mattzie told Mother Jones: "We're going to put them at risk."
The Bauer letters were the Obama campaign's high-profile contribution to this effort—though earlier, in the spring of 2008, Mr. Bauer filed a complaint with the FEC against the American Leadership Project, a group backing Hillary Clinton in the primary. "There's going to be a reckoning here," he had warned publicly. "It's going to be rough—it's going to be rough on the officers, it's going to be rough on the employees, it's going to be rough on the donors. . . Whether it's at the FEC or in a broader criminal inquiry, those donors will be asked questions." The campaign similarly attacked a group supporting John Edwards.
American Leadership head (and Democrat) Jason Kinney would rail that Mr. Bauer had gone from "credible legal authority" to "political hatchet man"—but the damage was done. As Politico reported in August 2008, Mr. Bauer's words had "the effect of scaring [Clinton and Edwards] donors and consultants," even if they hadn't yet "result[ed] in any prosecution."
As general counsel to the Obama re-election campaign, Mr. Bauer used the same tactics on pro-Romney groups. The Obama campaign targeted private citizens who had donated to Romney groups. Democratic senators demanded that the IRS investigate these organizations.
None of this proves that Mr. Obama was involved in the IRS targeting of conservative nonprofits. But it does help explain how we got an environment in which the IRS thought this was acceptable.
The rise of conservative organizations (to match liberal groups that had long played in politics), and their effectiveness in the 2004 election (derided broadly by liberals as "swift boating"), led to a new and organized campaign in 2008 to chill conservative donors and groups via the threat of government investigation and prosecution. The tone in any organization—a charity, a corporation, the U.S. government—is set at the top.
This history also casts light on White House claims that it was clueless about the IRS's targeting. As Huffington Post's Howard Fineman wrote this week: "With two winning presidential campaigns built on successful grassroots fundraising, with a former White House counsel (in 2010-11) who is one of the Democrats' leading experts on campaign law (Bob Bauer), with former top campaign officials having been ensconced as staffers in the White House . . . it's hard to imagine that the Obama inner circle was oblivious to the issue of what the IRS was doing in Cincinnati." More like inconceivable.
And this history exposes the left's hollow claim that the IRS mess rests on Citizens United. The left was targeting conservative groups and donors well before the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling on independent political expenditures by corporations.
If the country wants to get to the bottom of the IRS scandal, it must first remember the context for this abuse. That context leads to this White House.