A Biden Pick in Trouble

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S1: I think of the confirmation process so many Biden appointees are going through right now as a kind of beauty pageant for wonks, they get up, tell their stories in the most favorable light possible, let C-SPAN see them sweat a little and hope it all works out. Slate’s Jim Newell. He thinks about this process a little differently, more like Hunger Games for nerds.

S2: I think of it kind of like 20 come in, 18 will come out or something like what Jim saying here is not all these nominees can survive. The opposition is not going to just want to let the new president have everything done without scoring some points along the way. And typically that means getting one or two picks, either defeating their confirmation or more typically getting them to withdraw their nomination.

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S1: So you’re saying if you’re president, you basically you have to like you have to build a herd with some slow antelopes in it just to let them get picked off?

S2: You know, I I think that, you know, the opposition is going to look for a couple to pick off and then you could look at the administration then coming up with their list that way.

S1: The slow antelope in Joe Biden’s herd, Jim, says that’s pretty clear, the nominee to head up the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden.

S2: Now, you know, is that exactly what they thought, that Neera Tanden would be for them? I don’t exactly know, because the White House’s thinking on this nomination from the beginning has been kind of confusing. If you look at a lot of Biden’s nominees, they looked really safe. And she was the one who really did not look very safe at all.

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S1: The president might not have expected any Republicans to vote for Tanden, but her snappish Twitter persona, an 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.

S2: I was prepared for, you know, this nomination to be kind of a a slog. And I thought actually it wasn’t that the hearings were kind of debasing for 10. And just because she had to, you know, she’d have all these tweets right back at her and apologize for them, but they thought she would pretty much go through that that little hazing ritual and then and then get confirmed on a 50 50 vote. But Joe Manchin seems to have upended that plan.

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S1: Today on the show, when Neera Tanden has faced such stiff opposition on Capitol Hill and what that means for the rest of Biden’s nominees, I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Leading the Office of Management and Budget means joining the president’s cabinet and also spelling out the president’s priorities in dollars and cents. Jim says it’s a role that makes a lot of sense for someone like Neera Tanden. She said her hands deep in the guts of policymaking in Washington. For a long time, she was often thought of as a potential chief of staff for Hillary Clinton. But that loyalty to Clinton, it’s part of what’s made her such a lightning rod. It means Republicans don’t have a lot of reasons to love her, and neither do some progressives who watched his. Tandan eagerly attacked Bernie Sanders in defense of her boss. That said, if you’re wondering whether she’s qualified, Jim says, there’s no question.

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S2: I mean, she worked with Hillary Clinton since the 1990s and she’s on in various roles, some political. But a lot of you know, more recently she was policy director for Hillary Clinton in 2008, worked for again in twenty sixteen. She worked in the Obama administration as a senior adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services when they were drafting the Affordable Care Act. She had a very big role in that. Since about the last 10 years, she’s been the president of the Center for American Progress, which is a very central Democratic think tank. So, you know, I think there have been some saying she doesn’t necessarily have enough policy experience. This is a lot, in my opinion. I think she knows very well how Washington works.

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S1: So she’s not an economist, but she knows how to pull the levers, right?

S2: Yeah.

S1: And she knows policy questions about Tanden often come down to her style. The New York Times published this infamous story from back in 2008, about a time Tandan brought her then boss, Hillary Clinton, to an interview at the Center for American Progress. That think tank Tanden would go on to lead when Clinton was asked about her vote for the Iraq war, which was 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. There are a couple of interesting things to me about this story, which is, first of all, it shows this quality and tandem that she’s aggressive. And I don’t mean that as a slight like even her own mother told The New York Times that her daughter can be aggressive. She used that language. And then it also shows this divide in the Democratic Party where you have someone like Clinton coming in to talk to someone at a place called the Center for American Progress. Do you think it’s going to be a friendly interview and then you’re being pushed and the fact that 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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S2: Right. And I think. In the last couple of years, she’s probably better known, you know, on the left as this embodiment of the centrist Democratic establishment, there have been all sorts of controversies about, you know, from the left when she was a 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 twenty sixteen when her emails were hacked in the Russian hacking episode and released and she was saying some pretty nasty stuff there, I think that’s when she really became a kind of big villain of of a lot of Sanders supporters.

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S1: What did the emails show?

S2: There was a lot of what the left thinks the establishment says about them behind their backs. Like Tandan will publicly say, I believe in the idea of Medicare for all, but it’s politically very you know, it’s not likely to happen. And I think she was just a lot more kind of venting a little bit more in her emails about how unrealistic and idealistic, you know, some of these Sanders supporters were. And I think she showed a lot of frustration that a lot of the Hillary team had in twenty sixteen that Sanders could just offer anything, no matter how unrealistic. And it was hard for the Clinton campaign to to top that.

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S1: Hmm. And 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. Like, I wonder if you have a favorite exchange.

S2: Well, I just would like look at Twitter at like 1:00 a.m. and I’d see her, like, fighting with just Brandos about anything. You know, I do think that she after twenty sixteen and the specific experience of. Being hacked by Russian military intelligence, I think she was quite radicalized by that and just 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 know, you saw the sorts of protests that emerged right after that. Maybe from a lot of people who are politically active to begin with, she was already politically active, but I think she just kind of fell.

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S1: Like this was war now when Trump got elected, tendons, online persona started getting more aggressive. She used her platform to unleash missives against many of the senators she’s now depending on for confirmation. She called Senator Tom Cotton a fraud. Mitch McConnell was Voldemort and she said vampires have got more heart than Ted Cruz. She went after moderate Republicans, too, called Senator Susan Collins the worst. I have to tell you, I’m very disturbed about your personal comments about people. All this has created strange bedfellows in Washington. When Tanden went before a committee chaired by her erstwhile political rival, Bernie Sanders, it was a Republican senator, John nearly Kennedy from Louisiana who spoke up and defended the democratic socialist from Vermont.

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S3: I mean, you call Senator Sanders everything but an ignorant slut and is not that is not fair.

S2: And basically what happened, he can he read a few of these tweets or paraphrased them in his unique way. And then, yeah, he just kept saying, did you mean that when you wrote them? And she gave a bunch of responses?

S3: Senator, I have to say, I deeply regret my comments. I understand them. And did you mean them? Understand you? You’ve taken them back, but did you mean them?

S2: I’d say the discourse over the last you know, I feel really badly about them, Senator. I feel terribly about them. I deleted them. Social media is a terrible discourse. And he finally just keeps asking the senator, I must have that debate. But I really regret that.

S3: I I mean, I feel badly. I look back at them. I said them. I feel badly about them. I deleted tweets. Are you saying that because you want to be confirmed? No, I felt badly about them. And did you mean them when you said them?

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S2: Senator, I must have meant them that I really regret them, and that was that was actually an effective form of questioning because she came in here just ready to give a blanket apology and all these questions, and he got her to go a little bit. Off script, and I think you. I can’t accurately say what Cannon’s level of contrition is or what it should be, but she clearly had, you know, a preparation for this that, know, Kennedy was trying to to get through.

S1: Are the Republicans are there objections to Neera Tanden about having their feelings hurt or is it about something more real?

S2: That was the other funny thing. From all the senators who brought up these tweets. Including Bernie Sanders, who has been the object of some of tannin’s criticisms, you know, they would all clarify, like, you know, whatever we’re big boys like these would actually hurt our feelings. But, you know, just saying. You know, we just saying I am very hurt, you know, like, you know, but just in terms of your job, like you’re not to be able to you know, it’s not professional to say mean things about me anymore.

S1: There’s something a little bit rich about seeing a bunch of Republicans read tweets back and try to shame someone.

S2: Yeah, it’s that’s part of the surreal aspect of the whole thing, given what I spent the last four years in the capital. Hearing senators and members of Congress, Republicans say, I haven’t seen the tweet when you ask about, you know, Donald Trump like, you know, threatening to, like, knock up or like beat up someone or whatever insane thing he would my tweet at any minute, you know, so it’s kind of nebulous exactly how they’re directly linking this to making her unqualified to, like, write the budget proposal is. But it’s something like one thing is we just had an insurrection in the Capitol because of the environment or whatever, and we need to cool temperatures. That’s kind of what Joe Manchin is going with a lot. But then others are saying we need just OMB is someone who works a lot with members of Congress and we need to know that we’re working with someone who who will actually communicate with us and isn’t just such a sharp partisan.

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S1: So then what happened after these hearings last week, we began to see some folks start to come out and say, I don’t know if I’m comfortable with this nomination, starting with Joe Manchin. Right, right.

S2: Well, Friday afternoon, Joe Manchin came out with a statement saying he would not support her. It wasn’t just that he was in control. He was saying I will oppose her. Did that surprise you? Yes, it did.

S1: Why? I thought that if.

S2: What it didn’t seem to be coordinated with the Democratic leadership at all, I think it took them by surprise. But it’s just kind of seemed to to kill a nomination without much of the coordination you usually see when it’s determined that a nominee does not have the support, whereas they’ll kind of quietly withdraw their name. I remember a couple of confirmations in the Trump administration. Where you would see, say, Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, they’re actually a good example for for Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, they announced they would vote against her, but it didn’t imperil the nomination because Mitch McConnell still had the votes from everyone else. And that seemed like something where it was there were probably conversations ahead of time about that with this one. I mean, it really does imperil a presidential nominee. And you. I just thought we’ve been negotiated out with with leadership a little bit more.

S1: You did say at one point, you know, Manchin is going to do things like this from time to time, like make these little sacrifices to the gods of bipartisanship to have this semblance of centrist credibility. Is that what you think happened here?

S2: Yeah, I. I think Manchin maybe feels he knows how much power he has is the most conservative vote in the Democratic Congress. But he’s kind of 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, you know, 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. You know, 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 he’s going to take the opportunity.

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S4: When we come back, tendons not the only one facing criticism on Capitol Hill. Why it’s important to pay attention to who is getting this kind of pushback.

S1: With Joe Manchin, a no, the Biden administration needs at least one Republican to cross party lines and support Neera Tanden and some of the usual suspects are out. Susan Collins and Mitt Romney have both made clear they are not likely to back this vote.

S2: I mean, Susan Collins was actually really harsh. She didn’t just give the whole like 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.

S1: Yeah. I mean, she said her past actions have demonstrated this kind of animosity that President Biden has pledged to transcend.

S2: Yeah, but I mean, I think she even said on experiential level, like she didn’t have the experience to do the job. Neither the experience nor the temperament. Yeah. Yeah. So on all counts. Susan Collins is out. Mitt Romney, you know, I guess he’s seen as a moderate vote and. He’s a fiscal conservative, so I actually didn’t really see him to be especially in play for an OMB nominee, especially someone who probably just lit up his presidential campaign in twenty. I don’t know, maybe Mitt Romney doesn’t remember all that. But I think, you know, some of these senators, even though they may say that they don’t take personally all the stuff they said online or what have you, Politico did a story that. Susan Collins is really upset that Tandyn 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 the United States senator in a key position at OMB is something that Susan Collins asked so she knows she called Topher Spiro a troll of hers, meaning Susan Collins is like checking her account and everything, you know, so Niurka is probably called a lot of these people names and some other people. ACAP 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 they’re not really they’re above all that. I think they know kind of what’s been coming out of the broader cap cinematic universe here and, you know, they they might have some grudges.

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S1: They’re checking out their mentions. They know what’s up. Yeah, yeah. But even with this narrow pathway for support, the Biden White House is digging in.

S5: Does the White House have a plan B if Neera Tanden doesn’t work out?

S1: And could you give us a sense of what that looks like? Well, the White House’s focus, the president’s focus is on working toward the confirmation of Neera Tanden to lead to be the OMB director. That is our focus. I got to say, I don’t understand how your attendance nomination got this far. Like I look at how it’s gone down. And to me, like blocking this nomination is like the most bipartisan thing to happen on Capitol Hill right now. Like it was that the intent?

S2: Yeah, I think it’s it’s something where. Just because of her. Her negative history with some of the left, I think this is an easy one for for some Democrats in the Senate to block because, you know, 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, you know. 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.

S1: On Capitol Hill that Biden’s team expected, can we talk about the conversation that’s going on right now about nominations, especially of women of color? Because you raised a good point, which is there are a bunch of people on the Hill who are concerned with the optics here. You saw AOK tweeting about it the other day. And so 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.

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S2: Yeah, it does, I can understand why some people see that as the real problem, the one that I think it’s going to get the most heat in the end is Xavier Becerra, who’s the nominee for HHS, who would be, you know, a Hispanic director of Health and Human Services. And I mean, he was in Congress for twenty four years. He left at the beginning of the Trump administration. You 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 and I guess just, you know, doing a lot of partisan lawsuits that’s that create a lot of grist for Republicans to say that, oh, well, he’s a big partisan who hates all these people and all these things. And, you know, they just they they think he’s a little too partisan and 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 of these things where they’re going around saying he’s unqualified. And that seems to be a bit of a thread here, if you look at him. No, he’s not like. So some of what the opposition is. Oh, he’s he’s not a medical doctor. Well, most HHS secretaries are not medical doctors. So that’s Donna Shalala wasn’t a medical doctor. Yeah, we can dismiss that, like, right off the bat, you know, but 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 he was a member of Congress for twenty four years. And that’s good enough. You know, I I think that’s plenty. I think he’s been involved in health care policy. I think is California attorney general. He did a lot of work that touched on health care policy. So I think when when people are saying this, 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 that she’s hit with that, too. Yeah, I think that’s a serious thing to look into.

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S1: Yeah. And then I can kind of see both sides here, at least with Neera Tanden, because Biden has pushed this return to civility. And you look at some of the stories about Neera Tanden aggressiveness. And I think, oh, is that what we want to do here? I’m not sure.

S2: Right. I mean, there’s like, you know, there’s a lot of different strands going on here. I think the unqualified thing is ridiculous. But I just look at these nominations and I wonder, you know, the opposition is going to want something to unite themselves, especially this opposition, which. You know, he’s had a really bad month of January with everything that Trump did on his way out, and they need something to unite themselves around. And, you know, near Kansas doesn’t really offer anything to Republicans to to do a favor for Joe Biden.

S1: So was this a Biden misstep?

S2: I would think so, you know, if you’re struggling to get forty nine 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 you put her in an awkward position because you just 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’s 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. So be careful what you wish for. Yeah, for some on the left, be careful what you wish for and for those. You know, we look for yet again, another reason why Republicans shouldn’t go along with this nomination. They can roll the dice and maybe get someone more favorable to their policy beliefs.

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S1: Looking at what happened with Neera Tanden, I kept asking myself, like, what is this story about? Like, is it a story about bad tweets? Is it a story about the death of Clintonism or is it about like legitimate conservative grievance or is it about how women and people of color nominees are getting the short end of the stick? What would you say?

S2: The story is that all of us like. Who have been using Twitter for the last 15 years on a daily basis are never going to get confirmed by the U.S. Senate. And that we may never actually, yeah, in 20 years, people are not going be able to get any cabinet confirmed.

S4: Jim Newell, thank you for joining me. Thank you. Jim Newell is Slate’s senior politics writer, and that’s the show, What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Davis Land Schwartz and Daniel Huet. We get support each and every day from Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Keep your eye on this feed tomorrow, our Friday show. What Next? TBD with Lizzie O’Leary is going to be here. And I will catch you back here on Monday.