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As soon as Neera Tanden’s name emerged as President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to run the nitty-gritty of the entire government, Washington heard the political manifestation of a record scratch. This Cabinet nomination was either A) going to be a spectacular flex from the incoming Administration, empowering a fierce wonk who could make history, or B) going to devolve into a pile-on, with progressives teaming up with Republicans to exact revenge for Tanden’s history of savage tweets.
If everything else from 2020 is predictive, you can see which direction this is heading.
The embodiment of a Washington insider and personification of its nerdocracy, Tanden is one of the rare figures in this town whose seeming ubiquity doesn’t dictate irrelevance. A player in Democratic politics for decades — she started out by volunteering for Mike Dukakis’ 1988 presidential bid — Tanden’s Rolodex rivals almost everyone else’s. Her steel-trap brain seldom forgets a footnote or a slight. When her critics have dismissed the 50-year-old insider as a lightweight, they have been proven wrong in short order. Tangling with Tanden is seldom a winning proposition.
Tanden is a policy wonk who got into politics in the Clinton White House, where she became a trusted adviser to both Bill and Hillary. The UCLA and Yale Law graduate worked for Hillary Clinton on her 2000 Senate campaign, on her Senate staff, and for her first presidential run officially and as an outside sounding board on the second. Though she was unfailingly loyal to the Clintons, she was also one of the few Clinton insiders who successfully integrated into Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and Administration. From her senior post at the Department of Health and Human Services, she helped negotiate and then write the law we today call Obamacare. When she wrapped up there, she returned to the Democratic Establishment’s favorite think tank, the Center for American Progress, as its president and CEO.
Tanden’s credentials clearly indicate she is more than capable of running the powerful Office of Management and Budget, the White House arm that has a hand in everything from spending and oversight to regulation reviews, veto threats and congressional testimony from any corner of the Administration. A strong OMB director can be a President’s enforcer because she or he can financially knee-cap a fellow Cabinet member who freelances or strays from stated administration interpretation of the law. (Yes, OMB chiefs are a member of the Cabinet, although lower in the pecking order than, say, the Secretary of Defense.) There’s a lot that government can do through these little-noticed tweaks emanating from OMB. Few people know where all the tricks are hidden — or who to call to ask — as well as Tanden, who would be the first woman of color to lead the normally behind-the-scenes department.
But Tanden’s qualifications aren’t the problem. Tanden can be unapologetically confrontational; her Twitter account rivals President Donald Trump’s when it comes to hard-edged dings against conservatives and fellow progressives alike. As soon as her name became public, lawmakers and their aides alike predicted her nomination would fail in the Senate. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called her Biden’s “worst nominee so far” while his top spokesman predicted she had “zero chance” of being confirmed. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas called her a “partisan hack.”
Tanden has spared few in deleted tweets. In one, she called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “#moscowmitch,” an insinuation that he is beholden to the Kremlin. “Can people on here please focus their ire on McConnell and the GOP senators who are Up This Cycle who enable him: Cory Gardner, Collins, Ernst, Cornyn, Perdue, Tillis And many more,” she said in one, a broadside against Senators whose votes she now needs. In others, she pledged to defeat Susan Collins for her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. That track record, those and other Republican lawmakers say, should disqualify her for being intemperate at best, and partisan at worst.
Lost on no one in Washington is this: For the last four years, Republicans have gone out of their way to ignore Trump’s near-constant tweet-raging. If Trump’s tweets carried no political price, how can Tanden’s nomination be in question for a fraction of the froth? From the Senate floor, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer marveled at the about-face. “Honestly, the hypocrisy is astounding. If Republicans are concerned about criticism on Twitter, their complaints are better directed at President Trump,” Schumer said.
Republicans next year are expected to have at least 50 seats, with two still up for grabs in the upcoming run-off races in Georgia. Tanden will need at least 50 votes so Vice President-elect Kamala Harris can break the tie and put her over the top. (Democrats in 2013 changed the rules so administration nominees can now skate by with the barest of majorities rather than the typical 60 votes needed to leap a procedural hurdle required of most legislation and Supreme Court picks.)
Biden’s team clearly saw the problems coming. On Monday, as word became official, Tanden was touting her childhood as a daughter of immigrants and recipient of public assistance. She has recently deleted more than 1,000 tweets, according to The Wall Street Journal, many of them directed at Republicans who didn’t stand up to Trump. On those that remain, her policy chops still shut down any ridiculous talking points. She has little patience for hypocrisy or hyperbole, especially when it comes from conservative quarters or the so-called Bernie Bros, supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders who have slagged her for years for using corporate money to fund the Center for American Progress. (In a development that surprises no one, BernieWorld is also seething at her pick.)
Tanden is wise enough to the ways of Washington to know her confirmation hearings will be brutal. She’s been in the Clinton orbit since the 1990s, and there are few scandals that some Senate Republicans love to dredge up more than those involving the Clintons. The funding of her think tank will inevitably be called into question, much like Senate Republicans tried to make an issue out of the Clinton Foundation’s money. And don’t discount the problems that could come from the Left, where lawmakers are none too pleased with her consistent opposition to ideas like single-payer health care and Medicare for All, any potential work on Bill Clinton-era centrism or her handling of #MeToo at her organization.
Still, the real issue for the Right and the Left alike is this: Tanden is as competent as they come. She is as at ease negotiating across the aisle as she is schmoozing friendly donors, as genuine on a Sunday show set as she is in her office with the door closed and trading political gossip. You can dislike her politics and question her social media habits, but you cannot deny she knows the ground that’s been tilled for her. It now becomes a question of just how much Team Joe wants to fight for a relative outsider to his orbit. The answer may lie in if Tanden’s first task as the budget chief: to get 50 votes.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org