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Ruth Marcus: A trifecta with little payout

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: May 18, 2013

Folks, deep breath time. This is not the end of the Obama presidency. It's a bad stretch with an unfortunate confluence of unfortunate events. None of which will make the first paragraph — not even the first page — of the account of the Obama administration in the history books.

Let's tick through the trifecta of scandals and what they tell us — about the foibles of this administration, about the hidden operations of bureaucracies, about the modern practice of politics.

Benghazi. With the email chain released, the chief takeaway should be this administration's remarkable capacity to be its own worst enemy. It has managed to look as if it were executing a cover-up without having anything to cover up. The real scandal of Benghazi remains what previous inquiries concluded — that there were “systemic failures” of leadership resulting in “grossly inadequate” security.

The emails depict the White House playing the entirely appropriate role of mediating a bureaucratic squabble between the CIA and State Department, with the CIA focused on quickly delivering to Congress detailed talking points that emphasized its prior security warnings, and State similarly determined not to take the political fall.

The White House comes off looking rather responsible, which is why it is so puzzling that it has clung so fixedly to a story so demonstrably wrong: that its sole involvement with the infamous talking points was to correct a single word. In this case, the cover-up is worse than the non-crime.

Internal Revenue Service. With the Treasury Department Inspector General's report released, the chief takeaway should be the bureaucracy's remarkable capacity for incompetence and stupidity.

As I've written earlier, there is no excuse for the IRS actions — either targeting conservative groups for special review or misleading Congress about doing so. The president was right, if about 72 hours late, in demanding the resignation of the acting director.

But the IG report offers evidence that this episode is more reflective of an ignorant, recalcitrant and mismanaged bureaucracy than of a sinister political thumb on the tax scales. The IG describes how the low-level workers determining whether the tea party and other groups deserved nonprofit status “did not consider the public perception of using politically sensitive criteria” and noted the employees' “lack of knowledge” about what political activities were permitted under the tax law.

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