Monday, May 13, 2013

Next Time, Concede Nothing

Apologies are like racism. Well, no: apologies are good and racism is bad. Bbut "apology" is similar to "racism" in that the terms are overused and hence lose meaning.  Inadvertently, the National Journal's Ron Fournier highlights misunderstanding of apology when he writes

Two days after the IRS apologized for targeting conservative groups for reviews of their tax-exempt status, a top adviser to President Obama said “GOP groups flourished” in the last two elections cycles “and they will use this to raise more money.”

The tweet by David Plouffe, who left the White House in January, could give GOP reason to accuse Obama's team of playing politics with the IRS controversy by defending or justifying the agency's actions.

But Plouffe  said in a follow-up email to me that he was not absolving the Internal Revenue Service, whose actions he had called “dumb and wrong” in the original tweet.

Our exchange:

Plouffe’s tweet: “What IRS did dumb and wrong. Impt to note GOP groups flourished last 2 elections, overwhelming Ds. And they will use this to raise more $.”

My reply: “.@davidplouffe serious questions: Why is that important to note? Is it justification for the action you called wrong? If not, why note?"

Several Twitter readers quickly offered their own interpretation, including conservative columnistJames Taranto of the Wall Street Journal. “Because it goes to the question of motive,” Taranto tweeted. I asked Plouffe to respond via Twitter, email or my cell phone. He responded within an hour. Here is his unedited email:

“In terms of impact. Reading much of the coverage layperson would get sense premeditated attempt to effectively silence political opponents. I do think not as a justification but as an evaluation of any impact it is important to note that it would not appear their aims or fundraising were affected. So indefensible behavior by IRS clearly the story. As people are doing analysis it's a secondary point.”

 “So you were speaking to the impact, not justifying the actions or (providing) motive?” I asked via email.

“Exactly,” Plouffe replied.

The tweet came amid calls for Obama himself to issue an apology for the targeting, and as the administration struggled to get its story straight...

Plouffe may have referred to the IRS action as "dumb" because he believes Republicans "will use this to raise more $."   But he didn't leave it there. He labeled it "wrong" also.
Taranto did not add anything to his remark because it was a tweet, a thought- disabling mode.  But to call something "wrong" is definitive because it labels something  "an unjust, dishonest, or immoral action."

Of course, most critics- including the ostensibly objective Fournier, who snidely remarks "the administration struggled to get its story straight"- will not give the reader the background necessary to understand what went on.  Fortunately, Ezra Klein has, explaining

The culprit here is partly the Citizens United and SpeechNow decisions which lifted the contribution limits on wealthy individuals, corporations, and unions. But it’s also the IRS’s reticence to regulate the murky world of 501(c)4s — a reticence partly attributable to the organization’s fear of blow-ups just like this one.

Karl Rove wasn’t the first to try to use the 501(c)4 to solicit anonymous political donations. But he was the first big player to do it. And the expectation was that he’d had a clever idea that the IRS would quickly reject. “A lot of people thought Rove would get smacked back by the IRS,” says Hasen. “It didn’t happen. And then 501(c)4s exploded.”

Now everyone from to the Heritage Foundation has a 501(c)4. The number of 501(c)4 applications the IRS is getting more than doubled in recent years, rising from 1,500 to more than 3,400. That, by the way, is their explanation for the added scrutiny of the tea party groups: They weren’t trying to look specifically at conservatives. They were just trying to separate out the organizations that seemed likely to be overly political. But that simply speaks to the underlying issue: The IRS hasn’t set down clear rules — either internally or externally — for dealing with these new organizations.

Klein concludes "The danger is that this experience will simply make the IRS even more terrified of regulating 501(c)4s."  Plouffe's experience won't make him terrified of apologies or explanations, though.   Next time, he'll recognize that the key is to label one's comment an "apology" while avoiding apology, as in "I apologize if anything I said offended anyone in some way."

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