Politics

Biden Has Found a Way to Unite the Senate

It’s probably not what he had in mind.

Tanden sitting at a mic
Neera Tanden testifies during her Senate confirmation hearing on Feb. 10. Anna Moneymaker/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

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Joe Biden might not have expected any Republicans to vote for Neera Tanden as his nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget, but her snappish Twitter persona and unapologetically partisan hot takes have proved unpopular on both sides of the aisle. Now even some Democrats seem to be withdrawing support. West Virginia moderate Joe Manchin—a crucial vote—has said he’s a no.

Slate’s senior political reporter, Jim Newell, says there’s no question Tanden is qualified for the job: She’s worked with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a number of policy roles, she helped draft the Affordable Care Act, and she’s president of the Center for American Progress, a major Democratic think tank. The stiff opposition to Tanden’s confirmation is about much more than her experience. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Newell about what’s behind the pushback and what that means for the rest of Biden’s picks. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Questions about Tanden often come down to her style. The New York Times published this infamous story about how in 2008 Tanden brought her then-boss, Hillary Clinton, to an interview at the Center for American Progress. When Clinton was asked about her vote for the Iraq war—a sensitive subject—Tanden reportedly punched the interviewer in the chest. In her defense, Tanden said, “I didn’t slug him, I pushed him.” A decade later, that interviewer would be running Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

The story shows this divide in the Democratic Party, where Clinton thinks it’s going to be a friendly interview and then is being pushed, and that might be uncomfortable for folks who are establishment Democrats, who’ve worked with the Clintons for a really long time.

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Jim Newell: Right, and I think in the last couple of years, [Tanden is] probably better known on the left as this embodiment of the centrist Democratic establishment. There have been all sorts of controversies from the left when she was at CAP about the fundraising she was doing, either from questionable foreign regimes or from major corporations. But I think once she really started taking shots at Bernie Sanders’ campaign and after 2016, when her emails were hacked in the Russian hacking episode and released and she was saying some pretty nasty stuff there, that’s when she really became a big villain of a lot of Sanders supporters.

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What did the emails show?

There was a lot there of what the left thinks the establishment says about them behind their backs. Like Tanden will publicly say, “I believe in the idea of ‘Medicare for All,’ but politically it’s not likely to happen.” And I think she was venting a little bit more in her emails about how unrealistic and idealistic some of these Sanders supporters were. She showed a lot of frustration that a lot of the Hillary team had in 2016, that Sanders could just offer anything, no matter how unrealistic, and it was hard for the Clinton campaign to top that.

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Over the last four years, Neera Tanden really got known for her tweets. It was like the person in those emails just started putting it out there online.

I would look at Twitter at like 1 a.m., and I’d see her fighting with just randos about anything. I do think that after 2016, and the specific experience of being hacked by Russian military intelligence, she was quite radicalized by that, and to the extent that she was ever playing nice before, kind of stopped doing that. I think she was like a lot of people who, after Trump was elected—you saw the sorts of protests that emerged right after that, maybe from a lot of people who weren’t politically active to begin with. She was already politically active, but I think she just kind of felt like this was war now.

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When Trump got elected, Tanden’s online persona started getting more attention. She used her platform to unleash missives against many of the senators she’s now depending on for confirmation, people she’d need to work with as director of the OMB. She called Sen. Tom Cotton a “fraud,” Mitch McConnell “Voldemort,” and said “vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz.” She went after moderate Republicans too, calling Sen. Susan Collins “the worst.” When senators read her tweets back to her during her confirmation hearing, she said “I really feel badly about them” and “I must have meant them, but I really regret them.”

There’s something a little bit rich about seeing a bunch of Republicans read tweets back and try to shame someone.

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Yeah, that’s part of the surreal aspect of the whole thing. I spent the last four years in the Capitol hearing senators and members of Congress, Republicans, say, “I haven’t seen the tweet,” when you’d ask about Donald Trump, like, threatening to beat up someone or whatever insane thing he would tweet at any minute.

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It’s kind of nebulous, how they’re directly linking this to making her unqualified to write the budget proposal. But one thing is “we just had an insurrection in the Capitol because of the environment, and we need to cool temperatures”—that’s kind of what Joe Manchin is going with a lot. But then others are saying “OMB is someone who works a lot with members of Congress, and we need to know that we’re working with someone who will actually communicate with us and isn’t just such a sharp partisan.”

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On Friday, Joe Manchin said he would oppose Tanden’s confirmation. You wrote that Manchin is going to do things like this from time to time, “make little sacrifices to the gods of bipartisanship to maintain a semblance of centrist credibility.” Is that what you think happened here?

Yeah. I think Manchin knows how much power he has as the most conservative vote in the Democratic Congress, but he’s being squeezed a little bit on the reconciliation bill, the relief bill that they’re working on. He wanted to be bipartisan; leadership chose a partisan path. He doesn’t want to deal with minimum wage in it; they do. So he’s being squeezed on that bill because he knows he can’t really vote against Joe Biden’s signature opening piece of legislation. He can only tailor it a little bit. So I think he’s going to try to express himself in some other areas along the way. And that may be if a nominee who’s controversial, who he doesn’t know very well, is coming down the pike and who he wasn’t given a heads-up about or anything, then he’s going to take the opportunity.

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With Manchin out, the Biden administration needs at least one Republican to cross party lines and support Tanden’s nomination. And some of the usual suspects are out: Susan Collins and Mitt Romney have both made clear that they’re not likely to back this vote.

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Susan Collins was actually really harsh. She didn’t just give the whole “she’s partisan and I’m afraid I won’t be able to work with her” excuse. She also said she’s not qualified for the job.

“Neither the experience nor the temperament.”

Yeah. Some of these senators, even though they may say that they don’t take personally all the stuff that’s said online or what have you—Politico did a story that Susan Collins was really upset that Tanden had picked for her staff this guy, Topher Spiro, who was a health care policy adviser at the Center for American Progress and is also very active and very aggressive on Twitter. Collins was concerned. She said, “Why would you put someone who is a troll against a United States senator in a key position in OMB?” So she knows she called Topher Spiro a troll of hers, meaning Susan Collins is checking her account and everything.

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Neera Tanden has probably called a lot of these people names, and some other people at CAP have probably been a big pain for a lot of these Republican senators over the last especially four years. So even though they say they’re above all that, I think they know what’s been coming out of the broader CAP Cinematic Universe here and they might have some grudges.

But even with this narrow pathway for support, the Biden White House is digging in. I don’t understand how Tanden’s nomination got this far. Blocking this nomination is like the most bipartisan thing to happen on Capitol Hill right now. Was that the intent?

I think just because of her negative history with some on the left, this is an easy one for some Democrats in the Senate to block, because you can show off your bipartisan credentials and you won’t actually irritate the left. I mean, we should be clear: There are a lot of people who are very mad about this. I think a lot of people have viewed this whole process as sexist and insulting towards an Indian American woman who would be making history here. But I don’t think that Neera Tanden had quite the constituency on Capitol Hill that Biden’s team expected.

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There are a bunch of people on the Hill who are concerned with the optics here. You saw AOC tweeting about it the other day. It raises this issue of are the women and the women of color having to jump through more hoops to get approved by this Senate.

Yeah, I can understand why some people see that as the real problem. The one that I think is going to get the most heat in the end is Xavier Becerra, who would be a Hispanic director of Health and Human Services. He was in Congress for 24 years. He left at the beginning of the Trump administration, became a California attorney general—which is a bigger job, I think, than a lot of House Democratic positions sub speaker, because you are basically doing a lot of the litigating against the Trump administration—doing a lot of partisan lawsuits. That creates a lot of grist for Republicans to say that he’s a big partisan who hates all these people and all these things. He’s maybe a good target just because of all the lawsuits filed. But then, when we look at the race issue again there, it’s another one where they’re going around saying he’s unqualified. And that seems to be a bit of a thread here.

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Some of what the opposition is he’s not a medical doctor. Well, most HHS secretaries are not medical doctors. We can dismiss that right off the bat. He was a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, which has health care jurisdiction, and he was on the subcommittee that oversaw health care. And that’s good enough. I think that’s plenty. He’s been involved in health care policy. So when people are saying that it’s only the nominees of color who get this “unqualified” wrap, and you look at Neera Tanden, who is straightforwardly qualified to be OMB director and she’s hit with that too, yeah, I think that’s a serious thing to look into.

So was this a Biden misstep?

I would think so. If you’re struggling to get 49 votes on your own side—who knows how many votes she actually has among Democrats—then you didn’t read it very right. And you put her in an awkward position because you didn’t pay attention to the politics on Capitol Hill very well.

But I do think for all the complaining that the left and specifically some Bernie supporters have been doing about Neera Tanden, and maybe some hoping that Neera Tanden wouldn’t get the job, there are real concerns, because even though they may not like that she lectures them about how Medicare for All is unrealistic or whatever, she is on board with the project of big spending right now through deficits to rebuild the economy and to do a lot of very bold projects. And some of the other nominees that Biden was reportedly looking at, like Bruce Reed for OMB—that’s a former director of the Democratic Leadership Council, which is a very centrist think tank—that would not have been a good fit there.

Be careful what you wish for.

Yeah. For some on the left, be careful what you wish for. And for Republicans, they can roll the dice and maybe get someone more favorable to their policy beliefs.

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