Mountains, Molehills, and Neera Tanden's Confirmation

The conversation around Neera Tanden's confirmation is sorely lacking in good faith and perspective

If you needed evidence that Donald Trump broke everyone’s brain, just read some of the hysterical over-wrought coverage of and reaction to the effort to confirm Neera Tanden as President Biden’s budget director.

For those who have been fortunate enough not to dig too deep into this issue, Tanden is a former aide to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She has recently served as the President of the Center for American Progress — a prominent progressive think tank. President Biden nominated her to be the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) — a somewhat esoteric but influential position. Before her nomination, Neera was a very prominent tweeter who was often critical of Republicans (and some Democrats).

In full disclosure, I have known and worked with Neera for years. I serve on the board of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and I think she would make a superb OMB Director.

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin recently announced that he would oppose Neera, leaving her at least one vote short of the 50 she needs for confirmation. The vast majority of President Biden’s Cabinet picks have sailed through the Senate with barely a speed bump. Even Mitch McConnell (in the irony of all ironies) is planning to vote for Merrick Garland as Attorney General. Therefore, a nomination running into some potential trouble has become one of the biggest stories in Washington.

The press coverage of this whole thing has been so hyperbolic and lacking the historical perspective that many people have wondered whether the Biden Administration was sputtering out of the gate. Let me try to put this confirmation in a little bit of context.

What’s So Controversial?

In breathless article after breathless article, Neera’s nomination is described as “controversial.” This is great for clicks, but there is nothing traditionally “controversial.” No one doubts Neera’s qualifications for the position. Nothing has been uncovered in the vetting process that would upend her confirmation. There are no reports of unpaid taxes or sketchy business dealings. There were no problems with her performance at her confirmation hearings. This is inceptive controversy — it’s controversial because it’s controversial.

Some have claimed she is too partisan for the job of OMB Director. This is absurd and should not be taken seriously. The OMB Director is always a political appointment. Trump’s first OMB Director was Mick Mulvaney — a highly partisan member of the Freedom Caucus who would fail miserably as White House Chief of Staff. George W. Bush’s OMB Directors included two former Republican members of Congress, a future Republican Governor, and a campaign aide who would be his chief of staff. The idea that the person responsible for translating the President’s policy priorities into a budget shouldn’t be someone who explicitly shares the President's politics is patently absurd. Yet, Republicans keep making that point and being taken seriously by people who should know a lot better.

The only “issue” at hand is Neera’s tweeting. I put “issue” in quotes because it’s not an actual issue. It’s a bunch of trumped-up bullshit to give people who want to oppose her a figleaf to justify their opposition. Neera tweeted a lot. She attacked Republicans — including several whose votes she now needs. She got into a lot of fights with pro-Bernie Sanders elements on the left. It’s fair to ask whether this was the best use of her time (I ask myself this every time I open the Twitter app), but those tweets have nothing to do with whether she would be good at the job Joe Biden wants her to have. Her tweets look ridiculously tame compared to what we have become accustomed to in the Trump era. For example, the press keeps mentioning that Neera once called Senator Susan Collins “the worst” on Twitter. While one could argue that Josh Hawley is technically worse than Susan Collins, this off-hand criticism pales in comparison to things Trump tweeted about Collins.

The idea that Republicans who supported Trump throughout all of his insane Twitter tantrums would oppose someone over their tweets is too absurd to be taken seriously. Yet, that is exactly what is happening.

Is Any of this Unusual?

As I write this, Neera Tanden still lacks the votes for confirmation, but she and the Biden White House are still fighting tooth and nail to get her into the job. The fact that she may not get confirmed is being treated as an incredibly unusual and highly consequential failure on Biden’s behalf. This reaction demonstrates ignorance of recent political history.

As Matt Yglesias pointed out on Twitter:

Except for Trump, Obama, and Bush no other 21st Century president has seen a high-profile nomination go south.

A nominee running into trouble is par for the course. Trump had four Cabinet nominees crash and burn. Barack Obama’s 2009 transition is seen by many as one of the best transitions in history, yet our nominee to be Secretary of Health and Human Services had to drop out due to a tax issue. We had two picks to be Commerce Secretary drop out before we landed on Gary Locke. George W. Bush had to pull back his pick for Labor Secretary and later a nominee for the Supreme Court. Bill Clinton had similar troubles finding an Attorney General.

It would have been a “dog bites man” story if every one of Biden’s nominees sailed through the confirmation process.

Joe Biden is trying to get his cabinet confirmed in a 50-50 Senate, in the middle of a pandemic, and with an opposition party that tried to overturn the election results. Everyone needs to calm down and take a deep breath.

What is Manchin Doing?

Manchin explained his opposition to Neera as such:

I believe her overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget.

With all due respect to Senator Manchin, his reasoning is unadulterated crap. Manchin supported Rick Grennell, an “overly partisan” and toxic Twitter troll, to be Ambassador to Germany. He voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after Kavanaugh promised to exact partisan revenge on Democrats from the bench. He supported several controversial and partisan Trump nominees. So why is this different?

In Manchin’s defense, he is a Democrat who keeps getting elected in a very Republican state. Trump won West Virginia by nearly 40 points. Joe Biden couldn’t break 30 percent of the vote. One way Manchin keeps getting Republicans to vote for him is by finding high-profile ways to break with Democrats. In his 2010 Senate campaign, Manchin ran an ad where he shot a hole in Barack Obama’s climate change plan. Once he came out in support of passing Biden’s COVID relief package on a party-line vote, close Manchin observers assumed he would quickly find an opportunity to demonstrate his independence from the Democratic Party. Neera Tanden’s confirmation appears to be that opportunity.

What’s McConnell’s Deal?

Most of Biden’s nominees have received big bipartisan votes. Seventy-eight Senators voted to confirm Secretary of State Tony Blinken. Eighty-four Senators voted for Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Ninety-two voted for Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture. But Mitch McConnell is whipping Republican Senators to vote against Neera in the hopes of sinking her nomination. Why does he care so much about this nomination? If Biden has to replace Neera, the next nominee will be just as progressive.

First and foremost, we cannot ignore that Neera Tanden is a woman of color. And we know there is nothing Republicans and Right-Wing media love more than to demonize women and women of color in particular.

Second, McConnell is weakened and desperately needs a win. His approval rating among Republicans is in the toilet. The former President and most popular figure in the party hates his guts and has promised to destroy him. McConnell is trying to use the drummed-up controversy around Neera’s nomination to unify his caucus and show the base that he is not the loser Trump says he is.

Once again, it’s worth pointing out that McConnell spent four years pretending to be ignorant of Trump’s tweets and is now trying to deny Joe Biden, his highly qualified budget director, because of tweets.

Why Has the Press Lost its Mind?

The press has covered Neera Tanden’s confirmation prospects with the feeding frenzy ferocity usually reserved for major scandals.

Transition Playbook, a newsletter for people who think Politico Playbook isn’t gossipy enough, headlined a recent edition with “The Neera-Gate Conspiracy.” The Washington Post wrote an article criticizing Biden’s Chief of Staff for fighting to confirm Joe Biden’s nominee. Politico broke a land speed record with a pulpy, gossipy tick-tock story about how Biden “botched” the nomination before the committee had even voted. That article contained this truly astounding paragraph:

Biden and his aides insist that Tanden’s prospects are not doomed. But her fate now hinges on Sen. Lisa Murkowski swooping in to save the nomination. Even if the independent-minded Alaska Republican were to do that, the saga would still mark one of the biggest missteps of Biden’s still-young presidency, one that raises questions about the White House’s political acumen and its ability to manage relations on the Hill.

Yes, you read that correctly. Even if Joe Biden succeeds in getting this supposedly controversial nominee confirmed, it is still a giant misstep.

To be clear, a troubled nomination is a legitimate story. Team Biden is not immune from criticism. But why is the tone and tenor of the coverage so out of whack with the stakes and the historical precedent?

First, this is not a new phenomenon, but a huge part of political coverage is about making the ordinary seem extraordinary. Many years ago, Mark Salter, a former advisor to John McCain, once described the challenge of high-octane media outlets covering the day to day drudgery of governing to the New York Times’ Mark Leibovich:

“I’ve been in Washington about 30 years,” Mark Salter, a former chief of staff and top campaign aide to John McCain, says. “And here’s the surprising reality: On any given day, not much happens. It’s just the way it is.” Not so in the world of Politico, he says, where meetings in which senators act like themselves (maybe sarcastic or short) become “tension filled” affairs.”

The Salter quote was from 2009 and was specifically about Politco’s promise to cover politics the way ESPN covers sports. In the years since, Politico has become more serious and more traditionally staid publications have become more like Politico. The advent of Twitter and a growing dependence on click-based digital advertising has created an incentive structure to make standard-issue problems seem cataclysmic.

Second, everyone is still adjusting to the end of the Trump era, where politics was a 24-7 high-wire state of constant crisis. Buoyed by increased ratings and revenue, many media outlets grew their teams and their content offerings to try to keep up with the flood of interest in all things Trump. These armies of reporters are competing with each other for the big story of the moment. Thus far — and by design, there are fewer big stories in a Biden Presidency. Nobody abhors a vacuum like the political media. As Katie Rogers of the New York Times wrote:

Mr. Biden’s demonstrable uninterest in generating audacious headlines only emphasizes how much the Trump-size hole in Washington has created a sense of free time in all realms of the capital. Psychically, if not literally.

This is not to say there isn’t a lot of news to cover in the Biden era. America is in the middle of a pandemic, a recession, and is still dealing with the after-effects of a violent insurrection. These stories are all being covered with aplomb by the vast majority of the media. But there is a dearth of the personality-driven, Shakespearan dramas that were the bread and butter of the professional political press in the Trump era.

Third, once again the media is accepting Republican opposition as a given. Every reporter covering the confirmation knows that Republicans do not believe a word they are saying. The idea that any Senator who supported Donald Trump could oppose someone based on a few intemperate tweets is patently absurd.

Finally, we are in the middle of a concerted effort by some in the media to demonstrate that they can be as tough on Biden as they were on Trump. Because of the former President’s dangerous anti-press rhetoric, the press was cast as Presidential antagonists. This role was understandably uncomfortable for many reporters. When we disproportionately focus on things that wouldn’t have merited a tweet in the Trump era, it is part of an over-correction from the recent past. It is part of the press’s role to hold Biden accountable for his actions and his promises. That is their job. It will annoy me (and many of you), but that doesn’t mean that it is wrong. It also doesn’t mean that Democrats should harass the reporters whose coverage we don’t love. The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim has been the target of horribly racist and misogynistic online attacks after another reporter tweeted out a picture of her showing Senator Murkowski one of Neera’s tweets. Behavior like that is unacceptable. And it is on all of us to make that clear.

This is Just the Beginning

This will not be the only time a molehill is covered like a mountain. So the key thing for all of us is to distinguish between the two — even when the media doesn’t.

As someone raised by a single mother who relied on food stamps and Section 8 housing, Neera understands the challenges that too many Americans are facing and how government can address those challenges. If she doesn’t become Joe Biden’s budget director, it will be a loss for everyone.

But it will not be a major failure of the Biden presidency.

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