Neera Tanden’s Potential Defeat Should Be a Victory For Progressives. But It’s Not.

Neera Tanden

As I write this, the fate of President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, remains unknown. At least one Democrat — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who would have been comfortably in the center of the Republican party of thirty years ago — has already said he will vote against her nomination. Some relatively moderate Republicans, such as Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine, have also indicated they will vote against Tanden. It is very possible that Tanden will become the first major defeat of Biden’s term. And her rejection is deeply problematic.

Let me be clear that I will shed no tears for Neera Tanden. There are few Democrats who have shown themselves to be greater enemies of progressive values and significant change than she has. She is a close ally of the Clintons, an entrenched status quo neoliberal Democrat who has worked diligently to thwart efforts at universal health care; she exposed the identity of someone who was alleging sexual harassment at the Center for American Progress (CAP) where she is the president; and she opposes raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. She supported the invasion of Libya and, very much like Donald Trump, even suggested that Libyan oil be used to pay the U.S. for taking out its dictator Moammar Qaddafi.

In my own experience, I observed closely how Tanden purged some of the best journalists in the foreign policy field from CAP’s blog, Think Progress over their criticism of Israeli policies and eventually shut Think Progress down when it attempted to unionize. More importantly, mere months after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked with Republicans to undermine Barack Obama’s efforts to reach a deal to prevent the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, Tanden defied her own community and brought Netanyahu in for a talk hosted at CAP. Tanden was warm and friendly with Netanyahu, asking him largely softball questions and hardly challenging him at all.

Tanden, while leading CAP, solicited and received donations for that ostensibly “progressive” institution from such sources as: Facebook, Northrop Grumman, Walmart, Bain Capital, BlueCross/BlueShield, Blackstone, Goldman Sachs, Citicorp, Bank of America, Google, and other obviously anti-progressive corporate and individual sources, including the government of the United Arab Emirates, among others.

So why am I not celebrating the possibility of this woman whose policies and practices I consider so onerous being blocked from the role for which Joe Biden has nominated her? Quite simply because it is happening for very bad reasons.

Politics is an odd game. It is not uncommon for various interests, progressive or conservative, to get what they want for reasons other than winning a policy debate or even having substantial popular support. In general, you want to take your victories where you can get them.

But sometimes the price of that victory is too high. Sometimes the victory comes because of the promotion of values that are so anathema to the ethical agenda we are promoting as progressives or leftists or radicals, or whatever term you use that it is simply not worth it. That is what is happening with Tanden right now in the Senate.

The Evil Tweeter

Republican senators don’t like Tanden because she was mean to them on Twitter. The hypocrisy there is phenomenal on its face. Most of these same Republicans spent the past four years and more covering for a despicable person who abused social media and used it to abuse others like no one else.

Even more amazing, though, is the blatant hypocrisy of Joe Manchin, who has stated that he will oppose Tanden in large measure because of her tweets. This is the same man who voted in favor of confirming a long-time troll, Richard Grenell, as an ambassador to a close ally and to confirm Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court after his outrageous performance at his confirmation hearing. It’s not possible to square that with Manchin’s objections to Tanden’s “temperament.”

The same can be said, of course about Republican objections to Tanden’s nomination. After the kind of mudslinging that not only their orange leader has engaged in but so many congressional Republicans as well, the hypocrisy is clear. And, while that is to be expected from Republicans, it’s worth noting that Tanden should be the kind of nominee that gets conservative approval, if any candidate not from their own party can. She is among the most conservative Democrats, a foreign policy hawk, a fiscal conservative, a staunch defender of neoliberalism.

Moreover, Tanden is not being appointed to a policy position. The OMB Director’s job is much more about enacting policy than creating it. She is tasked with finding ways to make the White House’s policy agenda feasible, and to work with the congressional leadership to accomplish that goal. In that role, Tanden would need to work closely with another of her frequent targets, Senator Bernie Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee. Sanders has not yet said how he would vote on Tanden, but it’s very unlikely he will vote against her unless she is already guaranteed to lose. It’s unlikely that Biden didn’t discuss this pick with Sanders beforehand, in any case.

So why is Tanden being singled out for her tweets? After seeing the sort of scrutiny that Deb Haaland faced in her nomination for the role of Secretary of the Interior, a familiar pattern is beginning to emerge. Because what Haaland and Tanden have in common is being women of color.

Haaland seems likely to be confirmed, with Manchin having announced his support after reserving his opinion for quite a while. And, of the ten nominees the Senate has confirmed so far, one — the new Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield — is a Black woman. But she, like Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary Alejandro Mayorkis, is a very conventional choice.

Tanden is certainly more controversial. It would have been interesting to see what might have happened if she had reserved her social media attacks for the progressives who were her main targets in the real, rather than virtual, world. In practice, Tanden’s actions have overwhelmingly targeted progressive change rather than at countering Republican policies. But the tweets have given Republicans the chance to tear her down, and they are doing so.

The Republican-plus-Manchin attack (and that is a team we should get used to seeing) is squarely aimed at a woman who got out of her lane and engaged in the abuse that is supposed to be the province of men. She is also a person of color who does not have the protection of white privilege.

That is why Tanden is likely to fail in her bid to become OMB Director. And that is not just a bad reason, it is a harmful development for anyone with progressive, liberal, or even moderate values. She is targeted for being an overly aggressive woman and is vulnerable because she doesn’t have whiteness to protect her.

In the end, if Tanden’s nomination fails, Biden — who likely chose her in order to put a leading Clinton-tied figure in the role — will probably fill the position with another neoliberal who is as bad or worse than Tanden, but one who has been less active on Twitter.

Is that a progressive victory? I don’t think so.

None of this diminishes how terrible Neera Tanden’s track record is. If you want a picture of a Democrat whose policies are the very reason so many people see the Democratic party as a dishonest bunch who claim to champion working and marginalized people but instead work against any significant change for the poor and marginalized, look no further than Neera Tanden.

But if her defeat advances the very reactionary causes that Republicans in the Trump era champion, how exactly does that help progressives?

Author of "Except for Palestine," with Marc Lamont Hill. President of ReThinking Foreign Policy, writer, speaker, Podcaster, blogger.

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