How the IRS and Benghazi Fuel the Washington Trust Divide

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ABC News Analysis

The IRS' targeting of conservative groups has nothing to do with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, but these two political tornados collided simultaneously into the White House Friday and continue to swirl around Washington.

Both stories are like catnip for conspiracy theorists. On the Internal Revenue Service, conservative groups and lawmakers have for years complained they were getting harassed by the IRS. Maybe they weren't imagining things.

On Benghazi, conservatives have long alleged that the White House tried in the immediate aftermath to downplay that terrorism led to the consulate attack. Their suspicion is that the White House didn't want to admit a terrorist attack occurred right before the presidential election.

But talking points on Benghazi, it turns out, underwent heavy revisions. ABC News' Jonathan Karl unearthed those edits last week.

But while in both cases some long-held suspicions were confirmed, and the two have combined to dominate the political airwaves in the past several days, there are some key distinctions between the two.

First, disdain at the IRS has been swift and bipartisan. The tax-collecting agency, it turns out, was targeting conservative political groups as it assessed tax-exempt status for new organizations. The IRS scandal burst forth out of nowhere Friday and seems poised to dominate the political conversation.

Lawmakers from both parties have called on the acting IRS commissioner to resign. Indignant hearings are expected on Capitol Hill later this week.

The Benghazi story, on the other hand, has become ultra-partisan as it has percolated for months. Republicans on Capitol Hill have argued that the Obama administration intentionally played down the possibility that the attack on the consulate was a planned terrorist attack.

READ MORE: Benghazi Talking Pointed Edited 12 Times, Scrubbed of Terror References

Sure, President Obama referred to it as "terror" the day after Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three others died in Benghazi. But Obama's ambassador to the United Nations said shortly thereafter that it might have been spontaneous reaction to a video.

In hindsight, she was wrong. The question is whether the Obama administration was intentionally misleading or just misguided. The revelation Friday that the State Department was heavily involved in extensive editing of talking points that were given to Susan Rice set administration critics on fire.

That sort of political meddling is what the IRS story lacks so far.

Obama strongly condemned political targeting by IRS staffers in Cincinnati. He said today that he didn't learn about the story until Friday.

He said he would wait for an internal IRS investigation to take action.

"But I've got no patience with it," he said. "I will not tolerate it. And we'll make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this."

And he added that "integrity" is key for the IRS.

"People have to have confidence that they're applying it in a nonpartisan way, applying the laws in a nonpartisan way," he said. "I don't care whether you're a Democrat, independent or a Republican. At some point there are going to be Republican administrations. At some point there are going to be Democratic ones. Either way, you don't want the IRS ever being perceived to be biased and anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate."

Compare that to his dismissive tone regarding the Benghazi controversy, which he called a " sideshow ."

"There's no there there," he said of controversy about the Benghazi talking points.

Related: Lawmakers Want IRS Accountability

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Friday it doesn't really matter whether President Obama knew specifically what the IRS was doing when it targeted conservative groups. Obama, McConnell said, deserves some blame regardless.

"They all take their cues from the tone expressed by the president, and he's made it clear that this administration is perfectly willing to crack down on critics," McConnell told the National Review.

"… This is a lot bigger than just one person," he added. "This a whole effort by the administration, across the board, to squelch their opponents, to shut them up, and, finally, they've done it in a way that will allow us to call attention to it nationwide."

This is an important distinction.

You wouldn't know it from the way people talk about the IRS, but IRS agents - at least before this new political scandal - actually aren't all that reviled.

Here's how ABC pollster Greg Holyk put it just before Tax Day this year in summarizing an ABC News-Washington Post poll:

"The Internal Revenue Service, for its part, is more popular than the tax system it administers. This poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that about half of Americans see the IRS favorably, half unfavorably, 49-48 percent, better than one might expect for an organization that has to carry out the task of tax collection."

It is true the IRS ranks near the bottom in favorability for government institutions. A 2010 Pew Poll found the IRS with a 47 percent favorability. But that's a 9 point increase since a similar poll in 1998. Other government agencies, while seen more favorably than the IRS, have suffered falling popularity. The Food and Drug Administration had 75 percent favorability in the late 90s. It was down to 58 percent in 2010.

These institutions all have better favorability than Washington in general and Congress in particular.

Just 28 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Washington, the lowest ever in a Pew survey.

"This is more about elected officials in Washington, than it is about bureaucracy," said Pew's Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, trying to explain the discrepancy between attitudes toward the people elected to run the government as opposed to individual pieces of the bureaucracy.

"They don't really like either [institutions like the IRS or politicians], but politics is worse," Dimock said. "A big part of the dark cloud is politics. There's always a lot of distrust of Washington politics."

He added that this latest scandal, by politicizing what is supposed to be a nonpartisan government agency, could hurt impressions of the IRS, particularly among the limited government advocates whose interest groups were receiving special scrutiny.

"This cuts so close to the concerns of the tea party movement," he said. "It is the script. This is what they're worried about. Here is the government trying to use its power to tip the scales."