The agita over Neera Tanden is a classic Washington game of faux indignation with a soupçon of sexism. Tanden is a ubiquitous figure in Washington—appearing on television, speaking at conferences, running a mainstay think-tank/advocacy organization with a gauzy, patriotic name (the Center for American Progress). Short of being on the Kennedy Center board or living in Georgetown next door to Sally Quinn, it’s hard to think of someone who is more Washington. Like “Rahm” or “Hillary,” or “Bernie,” she’s a capital creature referred to by their first name.
But Republicans are shocked that this Green Room regular has said critical things about the GOP. After more than two decades in the policy and political wars, it would be weird if the 50-year-old hadn’t. What has them on the fainting couches is that she used Twitter to do it! Republicans are right: Anyone who sullies the polite society that is Twitter should leave Washington at once or by January 20 at noon.
For their part, some Bernie allies are dyspeptic about stuff she said about the Vermont senator when he was running against her mentor and boss, Hillary, in 2016 and against Biden in 2020. Sanders wrote a letter saying some CAP staffers had maligned his supporters. Lefties and righties are focusing on a 2008 altercation between Tanden and Faiz Shakir. Back then, he was a journalist at ThinkProgress, now-shuttered but then an independently run news organ of the Center for American Progress. He grilled her about the Iraq War, and she was taken aback by what she thought would be a softball interview. Shakir says it was a punch. Tanden says it was a shove. As a reporter, I’d prefer it was neither. But as a man, I have a feeling that if Tanden were a guy, this would not be seen as much of anything, let alone disqualifying. But pearl-clutching is where we’re at.
Part of the pearl-clutching about Tanden is that she will be nominated to be Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Implicit in the Republican criticism is that OMB Director is an apolitical job unsuited for a wild brawler like Tanden. Um, no.
OMB is not a retreat for monastic accountants unsullied by politics. It’s been populated by pols: Democratic members of Congress like Leon Panetta and Republican Congressmen Rob Portman, David Stockman, Jim Nussle, and Mitch Daniels. Maurice Stans, later a Watergate criminal who chaired the Committee to Reelect the President, was a budget director. The most recent former director, Mick Mulvaney, the former Republican Congressman from South Carolina, was a one-man wrecking ball: A founder of the Freedom Caucus, a Tea Party booster who defended speaking to the John Birch Society, a hack who once told lobbyists that he only likes to talk to people who give him money. He cared so much about his work at OMB that he also took on being White House Chief of Staff and the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Elizabeth Warren helped create, a juggling act that’s laughably absurd if you take any one of those jobs seriously.
I hope Democrats don’t fall back on a diversity defense. Tanden is the first South Asian nominated for the OMB gig, and cheers for that. But the real way to understand her is as a striver who made it into the establishment. The daughter of a single mom who went to UCLA and then made it to—where else?—Yale Law School, where they turnout leading Democrats the way Hershey’s turns out Kisses. Like so many before her, she was the indispensable staffer until she became a leader. Now, she’s a wise man.
Republicans who have spent four years enabling Donald Trump’s tirades are now judges of decorum who find her unfit for their politesse. “Her combative and insulting comments about many members of the Senate, mainly on our side of the aisle, [create] certainly, a problematic path,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican. Please. Tweets like this represent her savagery? “Can people on here please focus their ire on [Senate majority leader Mitch] McConnell and the GOP senators who are up [for re-election] this cycle who enable him,” Tanden wrote in June 2019, in a tweet recovered by the Daily Beast. Lindsey Graham, who deemed Trump a “xenophobe” and “a religious bigot” before becoming his courtesan, now calls Tanden “a nut job.” Susan Collins is, of course, concerned.
Democrats shouldn’t fall for it. If Republicans want to take down Tanden, they’ll almost surely have the votes to do so. It’ll probably help them raise money and give Fox News something to work with now that Trump is fading like a comet’s tail. But Biden backing down over a nominee who has done nothing wrong would depress Democrats and cheer Republicans. Biden’s right to extend an olive branch to Republicans even if they’re likely to snub it. But as the President-elect often said of Barack Obama, he has “steel in his spine.” Biden needs to have a backbone like a ramrod when dealing with Tanden. Is she the most incredible person for the job? She knows policy and has his trust and that’s what matters.
But there’s a larger problem. As someone who thinks cancel culture and wokeness are real and not an imaginary problem for liberals, this worries me. Talk about cancel culture. If an establishment striver like Tanden loses a job for which she’s eminently qualified because she was too mean to Mitch McConnell, the lesson to all of us is to keep our mouths shut.