If you wonder whether (and how) the IRS scandal and related White House shenanigans could backfire on Republicans, watch Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus.
In the last 24 hours, the man who conducted the "autopsy" on a party battered by President Obama in 2012 reverted to GOP form "“ demonizing, politicizing and overreaching just enough to jeopardize his cause.
Until today, Republican leaders seemed satisfied with letting the White House hang itself, learning from the Clinton-Lewinsky era that there is a fine line between outrage and outrageousness. Priebus may have crossed it.
It started with this Wednesday night tweet:
I retweeted the remark with a one-word reaction: "Overreach."
While the White House is guilty of incompetence and mangling its credibility in recent weeks, and while the IRS admittedly engaged in wildly inappropriate political targeting, nobody has been charged or convicted with a crime.
Congressional and FBI investigators will determine who directed (and knew of) the targeting, but there is no evidence today that it reached into the White House or Obama's campaign. Based on what we know so far, it is incorrect to say the president is "in the middle" of "lawlessness and guerrilla warfare."
It is also irresponsible. And it's bad politics.
Priebus was scheduled to appear Thursday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" shortly after my appearance on the show so I pointed out the tweet to panelist John Heilemann of New York magazine. He pressed Priebus to clarify. The chairman doubled down.
"You have to allow the evidence to come into play," Priebus said. "You have to connect the dots. I said a week ago, look, you don't call for impeachment until you have the evidence."
Interesting frame: Impeachment is coming, folks, but first some evidence!
"Now, I'm entitled to have an opinion that I think it's evidence of political warfare gone amok on behalf of the administration. I'm entitled to an opinion that this is political guerrilla warfare and lawlessness," he said. "But the extent — how far it goes and how far up it goes — the evidence has to come in, and I think that is right."
He was, of course, contradicting himself. If the evidence has yet to come in, you can't convict Obama of lawlessness.
Some Republican strategists watched in frustration. "When you have your opponent on the ropes, no need to punch below the belt," emailed Republican consultant Reed Galen. "Now is the time to swing to what make the GOP different and better for these times."
Privately, top Republicans including one close to Priebus said the chairman had ventured off message.
On "Morning Joe," Priebus mentioned the many contacts between the White House, the Treasury Department and the IRS in the weeks before the release of an inspector general's report, raising questions about the White House's transparency and competence. But the chairman had no evidence that the White House or campaign knew in real time of the IRS abuses.
"If you don't have the facts you need," Heilemann asked, "why are you saying he's in the middle of it?"
"You don't think the administration is in the middle of this?" Priebus said. He sounded a tad shrill. "You don't think the White House is in the middle of this? They've already admitted it."
No, Mr. Chairman. Nobody has admitted to breaking laws and engaging in guerrilla warfare. And, for the record, you didn't admit to overreaching.
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