Why Sinking Andrew Puzder’s Nomination Isn’t the Victory Democrats Think

Protesters rally against Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his name from consideration as secretary of labor Wednesday.

Jeff Curry/Getty Images

Andrew Puzder, Donald Trump’s embattled pick for secretary of labor, has tapped out. As it became increasingly obvious Wednesday that his nomination would die on the Senate floor, the fast food CEO withdrew himself from consideration, making him the administration’s only cabinet selection to collapse in Congress so far.

Progressives are celebrating. Activists have badly wanted to derail Trump’s nominees, and Puzder’s public profile was especially detestable. (You almost had to wonder if our Twitter troll of a president had picked him just to antagonize fast food workers, organized labor, and feminists.) As the the chief executive of CKE Restaurants—parent of burger chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.—Puzder argued against minimum wage increases and talked eagerly about replacing workers with kiosks. (“They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case,” he once said of the machines. Classy!) A Huffington Post investigation found that Hardee’s franchises were rife with wage-theft violations, which, while common in the fast food business, suggested that Puzder might not be a stickler about enforcing labor law. His company ran fratty, sexist TV spots featuring models chowing down on burgers while wearing bikinis. (“I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American.” he explained.) During their divorce in the 1980s, his ex-wife accused him of domestic abuse and appeared in disguise on Oprah to talk about her experience. (She recently recanted the allegations).

And now lefty groups are doing their version of a sack dance. My inbox is full of celebratory emails from organizations like Public Citizen, declaring “Puzder’s Withdrawal a Win for Working Families.” Even NARAL—the pro-choice group—felt compelled to tweet, showing that this isn’t merely being interpreted as a win for labor, but for the broader anti-Trump #resistance.

Symbolically, that may be true. But substantively, Puzder’s demise may turn out to be a subtle defeat for the left.

Despite his business credentials, many conservatives have been uncomfortable with Puzder because they viewed him as soft on immigration. This is because he was, in fact, extremely soft on immigration. A vocal advocate of comprehensive reform—he loved the old Gang of 8 bill that went nowhere during the Obama administration—he was prone to waxing rhapsodical about America as the land of opportunity for those brave and determined enough to journey here. He also liked that immigrant workers at his restaurants were just thankful for “the fact that they have a job,” and weren’t prone to cause trouble. He wasn’t an ideal voice for America’s undocumented workers by any means; advocating for immigrants so you can exploit their labor doesn’t make one a great ally. But in an administration dominated by white nativists, Puzder was poised to be the only notable dove on this issue. Best yet, it was conceivable that he might exert some influence on the president, whom he had advised and fundraised for during the campaign. Both men are wealthy, outspoken businessmen with a habit of objectifying women and a love of fast food, not to mention a record of hiring immigrants. They spoke the same language.

This irked immigration hard-liners, since the Department of Labor is responsible for administering and overseeing various controversial guest worker programs. Slate’s own Reihan Salam argued that Puzder was the one Cabinet nominee Republicans should absolutely vote against. Puzder ultimately tried to push back against his image as the administration’s potential open-borders advocate. “My job as a business person is to maximize profits for my company, employees and shareholders,” he said in a statement. “My job as the Secretary of Labor, if confirmed, is to serve U.S. citizen workers—that is my moral and constitutional duty.“ But it didn’t help matters when reports broke that Puzder had hired an undocumented maid—even though he wasn’t the only Trump Cabinet pick possessing that particular trait.

In the end, Puzder’s nomination seems to have been sunk by the combined weight of his flaws, but it’s hard to shake the sense that immigration was the decisive issue. Two of the first Republican senators to back off of him were, notably, women—Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—who had watched footage of his ex-wife’s appearance on Oprah. But other GOP members voiced concerns about his housekeeper. Meanwhile, Republicans are still standing pretty much in lockstep behind the alleged sexual predator whose ex-wife once accused him of abuse during a divorce who currently occupies the Oval Office. Given that, it seems Puzder might have survived had he hired a different cleaning lady.

Looking forward, whomever Trump picks to replace Puzder will almost certainly be just as bad on labor rights and worse on issues like immigration. One likely contender right now is Peter Kirsanow, who as a member of the National Labor Relations Board under George W. Bush had a habit of siding against workers. Kirsanow, who is black, testified before Congress that, “Not only do illegal immigrants compete for jobs with African-Americans, but that competition drives down wages for the jobs that are available.” He has other opinions that are sure to enrage the left—among them, he’s a critic of affirmative action and seems to think there should be religious exemptions to rules barring discrimination against gays and lesbians. “In our constitutional order, the first reason that religious liberty takes precedence over sexual liberty is that this is enshrined in our Constitution,” he wrote last year while sitting on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Kirsanow may not turn out to be the nominee, but chances are whomever Trump picks will fit his profile more closely than that of an immigration-loving burger exec. Puzder’s public attitudes toward workers and his alleged history of marital violence may have been loathsome. But the man still might have been the best we could expect from this administration.

Ironically, he might not have even been the nightmare on workers’ rights progressives imagined. As one key Labor Department official told me: “If the staff he brought in are a reflection of the kind of Secretary he would have been, he would have been someone who could be open to reasonable labor policies.”

“Democrats needed a win and they got one,” the official added. “Now we’ll get worse, I’m sure.”