I am not a fan of Neera Tanden—the head of the Center for American Progress (CAP), and President Joe Biden’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—and to the best of my knowledge, the feeling is mutual. This doesn’t make me special. Ask any number of leftist writers who spend a lot of time on Twitter about Tanden, and they’ll tell you the same stories: how she announced plans to fire the unionized employees of CAP’s affiliated website, ThinkProgress, and to replace them with scabs (ultimately she just shuttered the site following public backlash); how she allegedly hit a colleague, future Bernie Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, for daring to ask Hillary Clinton about her support for the Iraq War; how she named a victim of workplace sexual harassment in a staff meeting; how she pressured critics of Israel at ThinkProgress, bowing to the demands of pro-Israel lobbyists; how she accepted tens of millions in donations to her ostensibly progressive think tank from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, insurance companies, and the autocratic regime of the United Arab Emirates; how she once suggested compelling Libya to use its oil wealth to pay the United States for its 2011 regime change operation. And that’s to say nothing of the many times Tanden has tried to bully or intimidate journalists (such as The Week’s Ryan Cooper, or me) for writing accurate sentences about her, or complained to managers or editors about comments that she didn’t appreciate—not to mention her open contempt for Sanders and his millions of supporters.
As her own mother acknowledged to The New York Times, Tanden “can be very aggressive.” Personally, I would not have selected her for a powerful position in the executive branch, and the news that her appointment may fail to pass Senate confirmation gives me and many of my peers a fair bit of schadenfreude.
Yet, despite all of this, I have a strange sympathy for Tanden’s predicament. That sympathy isn’t rooted in any expectation that she’s the most progressive nominee we could reasonably hope for from Biden (the rumored runner-up, Gene Sperling, seems like at least as good an option). Rather, I feel a certain solidarity with Tanden because, whatever issues or incidents may divide us, she’s a fellow poster on the Internet, and now she is being punished for her posts—including some that were actually correct.
Most of the grievances I listed above never came up during Tanden’s Senate confirmation hearings earlier this month, with the exception of the corporate donations to CAP, which Sanders did ask her about. Instead, Tanden was grilled on her posting habits, with Republican Senator Rob Portman going over her most provocative tweets in some detail. So far, at least three crucial swing senators—Democrat Joe Manchin and Republicans Susan Collins and Mitt Romney—have come out against Tanden’s nomination, and all of them have cited her tweets as their main objection. A Romney spokesperson said that the Utah senator “believes it’s hard to return to comity and respect with a nominee who has issued a thousand mean tweets,” while Collins herself said that Tanden’s decision to delete some of her offending tweets “raises concerns about her commitment to transparency.” Manchin said that he, having reviewed Tanden’s tweets, believes that “her overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact” on her relationship with Congress in the role as OMB director, a role in which Tanden would supervise executive branch agencies and present the president’s budget proposals on Capitol Hill.
According to Politico, Tanden has tweeted over 88,000 times in the decade since she joined Twitter (about 30,000 times more than Donald Trump did in a slightly longer span of time). Her addiction to posting is no secret; many young freelancers and unaffiliated “shitposters” have gotten into petty Twitter fights with Tanden and her dedicated online defenders, often lasting well past midnight. For a think tank president and would-be public servant, that certainly qualifies as “extremely online,” to use the parlance of the platform. And while I was sometimes on the other side of Tanden’s tweets, I have qualms about them being a barrier to public service.
I want to be clear that I am not being radicalized against so-called “cancel culture.” Tanden is not being denied her right to free speech, and no one has any inherent right to be confirmed by the Senate for any position. And whatever other sins she may have committed, Tanden has no record of past tweets denigrating, for instance, people of color or transgender activists. Nor is she claiming censorship; she herself has been forthright, if perhaps not entirely sincere, in expressing contrition over her more controversial posts. “I know there have been some concerns about some of my past language on social media, and I regret that language and take responsibility for it,” she told a Senate committee on February 9.
No, the really frustrating thing about this is that Tanden is being held accountable for posts that were, at least in some cases, good. Portman, for instance, highlighted the following as examples that caused him concern: “You wrote that Susan Collins is, quote, ‘the worst,’ that Tom Cotton is a fraud, that vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz. You called Leader McConnell Moscow Mitch and Voldemort.” As a progressive, my reaction to all of the above is to ask: Where is the lie? If anything, Tanden was being too kind to Senator Cruz, who in the weeks since her testimony infamously fled to a resort in Cancún as Texas was paralyzed by a snowstorm that destroyed its power grid.
It may be unreasonable to expect any of the Republican senators Tanden has personally insulted to vote for her confirmation. And while it’s certainly hypocritical of any Republican senator who stood by Trump despite his daily social media outrages to raise objections to Tanden, partisan hypocrisy in Washington is a dog-bites-man story. Still, Democrats control the Senate, and there’s no reason why Manchin, for instance, needs to stand up for his colleagues’ honor in rejecting a Biden nominee. Some senators, to be sure, are citing Tanden’s rude tweets about Sanders as well, in order to demonstrate her unfriendliness to both ends of the political spectrum. But while Sanders himself is unlikely to be enthusiastic about Tanden, he appears inclined to let bygones be bygones and is rightly more interested in the substantive issue of her corporate contributions.
Of course, I have a personal stake in arguing this. While I doubt I’ll ever be anywhere close to getting nominated for a Senate-confirmable position, if I somehow were, I’d like to think that my confirmation wouldn’t be blocked just because I once told Iran’s supreme leader to “drag” Donald Trump; or because I told someone scolding me for my own difficulties with Obamacare that I hoped he would cry when he was forced to vote for Sanders in the general election (a tweet that did not age well). Recently, I’ve been trying to do fewer tweets of that nature for multiple reasons, but one is that I understand that they could be used against me later, just as they’re being used as an excuse not to vote for Tanden now.
To this, many readers will no doubt shrug and say that it’s common sense that one shouldn’t be a jerk on the Internet. Besides, isn’t Manchin right? Don’t we have enough intemperate partisan rhetoric already? Do we really need more combative, drama-prone people at the heights of power, especially in the wake of the Trump administration?
But sometimes incivility is exactly what the circumstances call for. There are many in Washington, especially in the centrist wings of both parties, who seem all too eager to brush aside the real stakes of politics now that we have a new administration. The last one, after all, was guilty of such incivilities as establishing concentration camps for refugee children on the border of Mexico or engaging in conspiratorial denialism about a deadly ongoing pandemic. There is no polite way to capture what Republicans in power have done and continue to do. Tanden can be fairly accused of many things, but she cannot be accused of being soft on the party that just gave us four years of Trump’s misrule, culminating in the attack on the US Capitol last month. With regard to Republicans, at least, she has consistently told the truth, and it’s very revealing that telling the truth is the one thing she’s done that’s a dealbreaker for a majority of the Senate.