The Senate Roots of the IRS Scandal

High-ranking Democrats in 2010 began egging the agency to investigate conservative nonprofits.

The Obama administration finds itself in perilous political waters amid three unfolding scandals.

First came last week's congressional testimony by three highly credible officials, plus some excellent reporting, which showed that the Obama administration consciously misled Americans after the Benghazi attacks that took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The White House and State Department knew the attacks were the work of terrorists, not the spontaneous reaction of viewers to an anti-Muslim video on YouTube, as they insisted for two weeks.

If the author of the fanciful yarn that a video provoked the attacks works in the West Wing or on the State Department's fifth floor, powerful heads should roll. Already, officials in both buildings are quietly suggesting someone in the other building is at fault.

Then, on Friday, IRS official Lois Lerner revealed that the IRS had been investigating the president's political opponents. Congressional hearings will soon follow. As Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has said, "we've only started to scratch the surface of this scandal."

The abuse of power may not be confined to the IRS. It might also involve high-ranking Senate Democrats who pressured the IRS to conduct such witch hunts and threatened action if it didn't.

In September 2010, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus wrote to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, requesting that the agency survey major nonprofits involved in political campaign activity for their possible "violation of tax laws." In February 2012, Sens. Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, Al Franken, Jeff Merkley, Jeanne Shaheen, Tom Udall and Sheldon Whitehouse wrote a similar letter to Mr. Shulman, and promised to introduce legislation if the IRS failed to "prevent abuse of the tax code by political groups." In July 2012 and again in August, Sen. Carl Levin complained to the IRS about its apparent passivity.

Finally, earlier this week the Justice Department admitted it secretly obtained phone records for dozens of Associated Press editors and reporters in order to investigate a leak investigation. Most voters may not be angered by this assault on the First Amendment, but it has turned the press corps on its White House handlers. As National Journal's Ron Fournier said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show on Tuesday, "We were lied to on Benghazi, on the talking points behind Benghazi for months, we were lied to by the IRS for months and now they're sending a clear message to our sources—don't embarrass the administration or we're coming after you."

The controversies are likely to demoralize Democrats who already are depressed by the collapse of Mr. Obama's gun control package, the failure of his political manipulation of the budget sequester, and the quick death of his budget.

The controversies will also further stir up Republicans for the 2014 midterms, adding to their anger about spending, debt and ObamaCare. Even before these firestorms, Republicans were getting keyed up. There was the unexpected opportunity for a Senate pickup when Mr. Baucus announced his retirement last month. And top Democratic choices announced they wouldn't run for open Senate seats in Georgia and South Dakota.

These three big controversies might also sap Mr. Obama's remaining strength. Swing voters who re-elected him in 2012 after punishing his party in 2010 clearly like the man. But evasive White House answers on Benghazi, the IRS's thuggish behavior, and the media's willingness to more aggressively challenge the White House could all undermine Mr. Obama's likability among this group.

How does the president get his sea legs back? The best option would be to get the truth out fully and swiftly and then hold people accountable and punish wrongdoing. Mr. Obama has called for doing so with the IRS.

But generally the president's instincts will more likely lead him in the months ahead to circle the wagons and become more prickly and self-pitying. On Monday, for example, Mr. Obama lamented at a New York fundraiser that his "thinking was that after we beat them in 2012, well, that might break the fever" among Republicans and end "hyper-partisanship" in Washington. That hasn't happened so Mr. Obama again blamed—seemingly for the hundredth time—Rush Limbaugh for the president's failure to achieve nirvana.

Is Mr. Obama up to overcoming the most serious scandals of his presidency? Count me skeptical. These controversies will stretch on and probably be joined by fights over the debt ceiling, the budget and ObamaCare's implementation.

A version of this article appeared May 16, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Senate Roots of the IRS Scandal and online at WSJ.com.