Neera Tanden is being treated unfairly (Opinion)


It was bound to happen, and I’m honestly surprised it took this long: the first Very Online woman is facing US Senate confirmation. And she may not make it through.

The woman is Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress think tank, and Joe Biden’s nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Tanden is also a prolific tweeter, and over the years has raised the hackles of right-wingers and leftists alike.

On Wednesday, two hearings to vote on Tanden’s confirmation were postponed, and the White House is reportedly assessing other candidates for the role. None of that bodes well for Tanden’s nomination — or for any women who also have strong opinions, don’t always meet feminine expectations, and didn’t spend their whole lives being small and cautious in preparation for a Senate confirmation hearing.

Depending on who you ask, Tanden is either “a big-government, big-spending radical liberal” (Sen. Rick Scott of Florida), or “everything toxic about the corporate Democratic Party” (Briahna Joy Gray, Bernie Sanders’s press secretary during his 2020 presidential run).
Some of the critiques are about policy, including accusations from the left that Tanden is hostile to progressive priorities, one piece of evidence being that almost a decade ago she suggested perhaps cutting Social Security benefits; and there are complaints from the right that she helped create the Affordable Care Act (something of an absurd attack line, but here we are).
Others are angry about Tanden’s treatment of Sanders in 2016, which leftist detractors see as a harsh and inappropriate effort to use her role to tip the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton. And on the right, there’s residual bitterness about Tanden’s strong — but really not out-of-bounds — words about the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
But many of the criticisms of Tanden aren’t about her political decisions or her record, but about the tone of her tweets. She’s “combative,” according to both Sanders surrogate Josh Fox and Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. Tanden, for her part, seems to have realized some of those tweets may be a liability, and apparently deleted 1,000 of them since the beginning of November, the Daily Beast reported.

But there’s something disconcerting about the “she’s mean on Twitter” rap being pinned on her, beginning with the obvious hypocrisy.

How will history remember the Twitter President?
Republicans have no leg to stand on here, given the Twitter behavior of former Republican President. Donald Trump wasn’t just “combative” on Twitter; he was burn-it-all-down destructive. His tone wasn’t just unpresidential, it was deranged, cruel, and infantile. And his tone was frankly the least of his Twitter problems. The President used the platform to lie again and again — including to claim, baselessly, that the 2020 election was rigged and that he won, even though he did not. Those claims sparked a deadly riot. That’s a whole lot worse than being “combative,” and most Republicans have given him a pass.

They also gave a pass to Trump’s own Twitter-abusing appointees. Take Ric Grenell, for example, formerly both the Acting Director of National Intelligence and US Ambassador to Germany.

Back in 2012, well before he worked for Trump, he scrubbed hundreds of tweets from his account, HuffPost reported — tweets that were not merely “combative,” but racist, sexist and generally trolling (he apologized). At the time he was just starting a job as foreign policy spokesman for Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign; he resigned.

But in 2018, the GOP had no problem with approving Grenell’s diplomatic appointment.

The same Republican Party that complains Democrats are too “politically correct” and that assiduously courts supporters whose mantra is “f— your feelings” now wants us to believe it’s scandalized by a woman who rightly identified several Republican senators as “enablers” of the President and using a cheeky hashtag to mock Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But it’s not just the right. Many Bernie Sanders supporters, former staffers, and surrogates are also complaining about Tanden, who was a vocal Hillary Clinton supporter in the contentious 2016 Democratic primary.
And certainly there are sincere ideological differences. It’s a bit rich, though, to hear some of the most pugilistic people on Twitter, who supported Sanders in large part because he was uncompromising, and unapologetic, about his views — and continued to support him even after he brought some of his most notoriously belligerent supporters onto his staff — complain that Tanden is too antagonistic on social media.

Social media behavior should certainly not be off limits for either political appointees or candidates. How one behaves online reflects both one’s views and one’s judgment. But it is telling to see who is held to what standard.

Tanden’s tweets are not nearly as egregious or insulting as the former President’s — or Ric Grenell’s. Yet many Republicans are arguing that they reveal her as too partisan and too quick to insult. And while Sanders’s surrogate Fox complained that Tanden “causes ire unnecessarily,” I suspect the same complaint could be leveled at a great many progressives who are big (and much needed) thorns in the sides of prominent Democrats.

Donald Trump's other, tragic big lie

One difference between Tanden and Grenell is that she’s a liberal, and so expectations for good behavior are simply higher. Another is that she’s a woman, and so there is the retrograde expectation that she will be a nice peacemaker: Combative women are particularly unloved, while combative men often earn respect.

But whatever you think of Tanden there’s more at stake here than just her nomination. She is simply the first person whose prolific and controversial social media presence is complicating her confirmation.

Which poses an important question: How do we want people who are politically engaged and passionate to behave online?

One answer is “perfectly.”

In that case, prepare yourself for a future of hyper-elite rule, where the only people who are able to get through the confirmation process are those who have been planning for a career in politics since they were 12, who had parents and connections sophisticated enough to teach them exactly how to get there, and who were willing to cede full participation in public debates and rein in intellectual risk-taking, and the growth that brings, in order to pursue their desired career.

Another answer to the question is “imperfectly, within reasonable bounds.”

To be clear: Someone who is trolling and abusive on Twitter (ahem, Ric Grenell) or someone who uses social media to spread lies, conspiracy theories, and racist resentment (ahem, the former President) is unfit for public office.

But someone who occasionally has bad takes, who sometimes gets into heated but sincere arguments, and who is “combative” because they give a damn — but who is not a liar, a fraud, or a troll — is perhaps the kind of person who we do want in positions of power.

It’s one thing to disagree with Tanden politically and ideologically; that is certainly fair game. But the American people chose Joe Biden as president, and as president he really should get to pick the members of his own team — so long as they’re qualified for the job, which Tanden is. A Yale-educated lawyer, she served as policy director for then Sen. Hillary Clinton, was the domestic policy director for the Obama-Biden campaign and was a senior adviser for health reform in Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services. She helped draft the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Branding her a Twitter meanie whose online sparring makes her unfit for duty is hypocritical and dishonest, coming as it does from some of the rudest people on Twitter, and others who have thrown their support behind the most famous Twitter abuser of them all.

This article has been updated from an earlier version to reflect the latest news on Neera Tanden’s confirmation hearings for director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Biden administration.





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