I do not have strong feelings one way or the other on Neera Tanden. I am passingly familiar with her work on the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign (for which I volunteered) and at the Center for American Progress. I occasionally saw her on MSNBC, but I don’t watch much cable news. Nor have I ever followed her on Twitter. But I cannot help but to feel the way she is being treated is abhorrent.
Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, Tanden’s confirmation is at risk over old tweets in which she was critical of members of the Senate. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) criticized Tanden for calling Susan Collins “the worst” (hardly the most offensive insult directed at a woman politician on Twitter of late), for calling Mitch McConnell “Voldemort” (a common if overused pop culture reference), and for saying that “vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz” (unconfirmed, but worth looking into). Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has gone even further, saying Tanden’s “overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact” on the relationship between Congress and the OMB, and refusing to support her nomination.
There is certainly something to be said for all of us being kinder on Twitter, a fact even Tanden herself acknowledges. “I do think the last several years have been very polarizing, and I apologize for my language that has contributed to that,” she told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. But let he who is without sin hit the block button on this nomination. Who among us hasn’t felt the fire burning in their belly as they read something so offensive or so stupid that they couldn’t help but to respond? There’s a reason so many people call it a#hellsite. It brings out the worst in us.
Twitter itself does not help the situation, inviting us to share our most outrageous takes and rewarding our worst behavior with likes and retweets. It’s no secret that the platform is rarely conducive to constructive political discourse.
Yet it’s important to remember that Tanden wasn’t dog-piling Myrna Tellingheusen or some other private citizen. Indeed, Tanden’s position as chair of the centre-left think tank the Center for American Progress meant that it was her job to attack Republican policies and decisions at the time. Sure, her tweets were often rude, but as Dana Milbank pointed out in theWashington Post, they pale in comparison to a lot of things said by Republican men, such as Mike Pompeo, who called John Kerry a “traitor,” or Ryan Zinke, who referred to Hillary Clinton as the “anti-Christ.” Tanden certainly didn’t use racial slurs like Jeff Sessions is alleged to have done. Never mind the previous president, who routinely savaged critics and opponents on Twitter like it was a blood sport.
Yet every Republican Senator and Joe Manchin voted to confirm these men. The double standard is so glaring it hurts to look at it. It is for this reason that Tanden’s nomination has become about more than mean tweets and courteous conversation. These Senators are hiding their disdain for her behind the veil of “decorum,” hoping to make an example of her as a warning for others: cross us at your own peril.
As Cenk Uygur — a left-wing activist most known for his role as host ofThe Young Turks and, it’s worth noting, a frequent critic of Tanden — tweeted, “This is about the message it’s going to send loud and clear to everyone in DC – if you ever criticize the powerful, we’ll end your career.” These Senators clearly do not like that Tanden — who it is worth pointing out is a center-left woman of color as opposed to a right-wing white man like Sessions, Zinke, and Pompeo — stuck her head above the parapet so brazenly, so now they are trying to destroy her. Unfortunately, it seems to be working. Without Manchin’s vote, it is hard to imagine that she will be confirmed.
That is a chilling prospect. Not because Tanden is uniquely qualified or beyond reproach — I’m sure Joe Biden can find another OMB Director easily — but because a private citizen who criticized her government is now being punished by those she criticized for the crime of criticizing them. She is, one might argue, being “canceled.” Indeed, you would think that Republicans, who spend so much time lamenting “cancel culture” and the attacks on free speech — including the banning of Donald Trump from Twitter for inciting an insurrection — would be defending Tanden’s right to free speech right now. Surprisingly, they’re silent.
Alas, Tanden made the prize mistake of punching up. Trump can say whatever he wants about immigrants, Muslims, or Black Lives Matter activists. But Neera Tanden calling Tom Cotton a “fraud” is a bridge too far. We must restore decency to discourse! But only for women and people of color, and only if they are to the left of Ronald Reagan.
If we are really concerned about free speech — not as a narrow legalistic concept but in a broader context including the right to criticize those in power without fear of personal or economic repercussions — then we must be concerned about Neera Tanden’s confirmation. There is nothing more important to a functioning democracy than the ability to insult your leaders without fear of reprisal. Barring slander, slurs, or threats of violence, no American should be penalized because they expressed disagreement or even disdain for their elected officials. Not you. Not me. Not even Neera Tanden.