“I kind of think there were moments where she would have been better off asleep,” said John Podesta, a close friend and ally. “Rather than getting up in the middle of the night, responding to people attacking her.”
Then again, if there was no fighting, there would be no Neera Tanden.
Tanden, a professional Democrat and President Biden's pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, fought her way to the threshold of the White House, only to be swatted at by senators who claimed that her appetite for partisan conflict — on Twitter, specifically — disqualifies her from holding that much power. The same fighting that got her here, in other words, now threatens to sink her.
“Just to mention a few of the thousands of negative public statements,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), speaking with the steady monotone of a not-mad-but-disappointed dad, “you wrote that Susan Collins is ‘the worst,’ that Tom Cotton is a ‘fraud,’ that vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz.”
It was the first of two contentious and occasionally farcical confirmation hearings for Tanden, whose many years as head of the Center for American Progress made her nomination difficult to kill on the grounds of professional bona fides. Hence the exhaustive discussion of Tanden’s tweets, and whether she was sorry for them, and whether that was enough.
With Donald Trump gone, the city’s political classes were renegotiating the rules of engagement for political warfare. Questions of who was allowed to fight, and how, were back on the table. Respectability was back in fashion. Never mind that personal attacks and untempered outrage were the most reliable way to rise in Washington during the Trump years; Biden has reached for the reset button, and Republicans — after years of ignoring the president’s mean tweets as inconsequential — were all too eager to rewire that button to blow Tanden’s nomination out of the water.
That’s how Tanden found herself at center stage in the first morality play of the post-Trump era.
“I don’t mind disagreements in policy — I think that’s great, I love the dialectic,” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) told her at a confirmation hearing on Feb. 10. “But the comments were personal. I mean, you call Senator Sanders everything but an ignorant slut.”
“That is not true, senator,” Tanden replied, maintaining an even tone.
“When you said these things, did you mean them?”
A pause. “Senator, I have to say, I deeply regret my comments, and I feel badly about them.”
“I understand that,” Kennedy interrupted, “but when you said them, did you mean them? I understand you taking them back, but did you mean them?”
“I’d say the discourse over the last four years, on all sides, has been incredibly polarizing,” Tanden said, carefully.
“I’m asking about yours,” said Kennedy, holding his eyeglasses. “Did you mean them?”
Another pause. “I really feel badly about them, senator.”
“Did you mean them?”
“I feel badly about them.”
“Did you mean them when you said them?”
“I mean, I would say, social media is a terrible news source.”
“Did you mean them when you said them?”
“I feel terribly about them.”
She was in the fight of her life, and the only possible way to win was by pretending she wasn’t interested in fighting at all.
As much as her confirmation battle has been about her tweets, Tanden’s life story does not fit neatly into 280 characters or fewer.
Her parents were nearly strangers when they wed; the marriage was arranged, and ultimately doomed. They got married in India, moved to the Boston area and split up when Tanden was 5. Her father left town. “I have vivid memories of that difficult time,” Tanden wrote in 2014. “Checking out at the grocery store, we were the only shoppers in line using food stamps. At school, I was the kid in the cafeteria paying with a voucher for reduced-price lunch.”
With the help of public assistance, her mother, Maya, kept their heads above water before landing jobs that allowed her to buy a house and send Tanden and her brother to college. Tanden came away with the understanding that welfare programs are part of what makes the American Dream possible. The fight to maintain that safety net, she said at her hearings, is her “north star.” (Tanden declined to comment for this story.)
She wasn’t completely dependent on her mother or the state. Tanden doesn’t talk about her relationship with her father very much, at least not publicly. “I’m not going to talk about him,” Tanden said in a 2011 interview. “I’m not Lindsay Lohan.” They are currently not speaking, according to multiple people familiar with the family. But a few years after the divorce, he reentered Tanden’s life, moving to a nearby suburb with his new wife. By the time Tanden was in high school, her father had become quite wealthy. He provided some financial support, according to people familiar, bought her clothes and presents, took her and her brother on family vacations with their half sister and stepsister, and had them sleep over at his place on weekends.
Still, “it definitely was not a piece of cake for her,” said Sharon Wachsler, a friend from those years. “She went home to an empty house a lot in high school and had to figure a lot of it out on her own,” said another childhood friend, Julie Brill. “I think it made her a pretty serious person.”
Growing up on both sides of the wealth gap complicates but should not diminish Tanden’s origin story as a fighter for equality, a friend said. “If anything,” said the friend, “I think it drove home the unfairness of it all.”
Tanden is now 50, short, dark-haired and youthful, and is defined less by her upbringing and more by her career-long relationship with Hillary Clinton: working as a policy adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House, then deputy campaign manager for Hillary’s Senate run and unpaid adviser on her 2016 presidential run. Tanden was a likely pick to be Clinton’s chief of staff had she won.
Instead, she rode out the Trump years in her role as the president of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank that under Tanden’s direction served as a key battle station of The Resistance. She tweeted impishly about Republicans while annoying left-wing Democrats by raising lots of money from corporate America and bashing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Twitter. (Sanders seems to remember this, even if he’s willing to forgive it. “There were vicious attacks made against progressives, people who I have worked with, me personally,” he said at one of Tanden’s confirmation hearings.)
CAP has continued to play an important role in Washington policy debates about immigration, criminal justice reform, economics and health care. It’s the kind of place that ambitious, brainy liberals flock to for a chance to work on issues they care about while putting themselves in a good position to join a Democratic administration or consulting shop.
This has only become truer since Tanden took over as president: CAP has grown from 243 employees when she started, in 2011, to 322 last year, according to a document the think tank provided. It has become more diverse, too, with much higher percentages of women and employees of color.
Tanden’s talent as a fundraiser has led to $45 million to $50 million budgets for CAP, and for the most part people enjoy working there. A recent internal survey, conducted by an outside firm and described to The Post by a CAP spokesman, showed that 91 percent of respondents were “satisfied” with their experience working at CAP, and many former staffers say Tanden is part of the reason they liked being there.
Melissa Boteach, now a vice president at the National Women’s Law Center, recalled struggling to adjust to work when she returned to CAP after having her second child. “Neera pulled me into her office and closed the door,” she said. “She gave me a hug and said, ‘I’ve got your back, you’ve got this.’ That moment of encouragement really made a difference.”
Tanden has rubbed some other staffers the wrong way over her decade in charge. Her prolific tweeting, which predated Trump, bothered one former CAP staffer. Those public, online fights “undermined the work we were doing, with people focusing on the spectacle of Neera,” said the former staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
“It was embarrassing to come into the office and see that your boss had been in a Twitter fight at 3 in the morning,” said the former staffer.
Kalen Pruss, another former staffer — who worked at CAP from 2010 to 2012 — said Tanden’s tweets are a window into what she considers to be Tanden’s character. Pruss said that in her experience, the pugilistic and unfiltered persona Tanden presents online reflects her persona as a boss. “I would confirm that it is as bad as it seems to be on Twitter,” she said.
In 2018, BuzzFeed reported that a female employee wrote in an exit memo that CAP had mishandled her sexual harassment complaint, and that for her and others “the retaliation, worsening of already tenuous team dynamics, and treatment by supervisors outweighed the seemingly positive act of reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.” Later, Tanden said the first name of the anonymous woman in a staff meeting.
“Neera immediately apologized for this during the meeting, reached out to the victim and has been grateful for her forgiveness,” a CAP spokesperson said in a statement to The Post.
Three former CAP staffers who said they attended that meeting told The Post they felt Tanden should have resigned after that incident, which was perhaps the biggest controversy of her tenure.
Other former staffers talked to The Post about concerns with Tanden’s management style. Six people recalled being taken aback by belittling, tone-deaf or otherwise rankling remarks they remember Tanden making in the office, though most balked at going on the record because they were worried what it would mean for them professionally to speak ill of her.
In 2017, Pruss and two other former CAP colleagues discussed Tanden in three-way text messages, which Pruss shared with The Post.
“She was/ is the worst,” said one of the other former staffer, in one message. “i basically just remember her saying how horrible my clothes were, asking why anyone would date me, ordering me around for literally everything, going into a dressing room with her.”
In another message, the staffer wrote: “I can’t believe what she gets away with.”
“I object to this invasion of my privacy with the use of personal texts,” said the former staffer in an email to The Post. “These statements are taken out of context and completely misconstrue my relationship with Neera. We had a very close working relationship and we were also close friends.”
In statements provided to The Post by a CAP spokesman, three people who worked closely with Tanden, including during her earliest years at the organization, said they never witnessed or heard about inappropriate comments made by the boss. “I worked in the pod immediately outside Neera Tanden’s office when she took over as president,” said Seher Syed, who served as a special assistant. “Neera was always respectful, professional and diligent and was great to work with.”
Many former and current employees describe Tanden as passionate and knowledgeable — someone who could be demanding, but also warm — and believe the media coverage of a tough, female boss has been unfair.
“Leading an organization where people can thrive is a core value of Neera Tanden’s, and she has implemented concrete accountability avenues for all leaders at CAP,” wrote Daniella Gibbs Léger, executive vice president for communications and strategy at CAP. “Internal and public staff surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of brilliant, hard-working people at CAP — more than a thousand over Tanden’s tenure — have indeed thrived.”
Tanden’s management skills were briefly discussed at her confirmation hearings, but not in a serious way: Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) read aloud some negative reviews of working at CAP posted anonymously to Glassdoor.com, which is like Yelp for workplaces, and on which Tanden has actually received high marks. “June 2019: one out of five stars, ‘Terrible, absolutely horrible,’ ” said the senator. “October 2016: ‘Cool work but absurd management.’ ”
Of course, Tanden’s ability to run a large organization was never the issue.
“Honestly,” Tanden wrote in a 2018 email, “there isn’t rhetoric that is too harsh for Ted Cruz.”
She had recently returned to Washington from a mission to El Paso, to help Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke prepare for a debate with Cruz.
Tanden, who was not being paid by the campaign, suggested that O’Rourke “lean into” his scorn for pollsters and political consultants, according to people at the debate-prep session. She advised him to court Republicans by mentioning the pressures he’d faced as a business owner. (“Talk about your experience as an entrepreneur and making payroll as much as possible,” she wrote to the campaign, according to emails obtained by The Post.)
And when it comes to Cruz? Don’t hold back.
The problem for Tanden, now, is that she appears to have taken her own advice.
“There are still a lot of harsh, partisan tweets on your account,” Rob Portman, a former budget director himself, informed Tanden at her Feb. 9 hearing. “I found, through my staff, there are still nine pages of tweets about Senator Ted Cruz, for example.”
Tanden has deleted many of her tweets, a fact that some Republicans seem to find just as damnable as tweeting in the first place (more Clinton comparisons, anyone?). The Tanden Twitter oeuvre is at once large and incomplete, checkered with snark. And yet, given all the outrage, you might think Tanden had been comparing her political opponents to Hitler, not the villain from Harry Potter.
“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,” said Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the most moderate Democratic senator. “For this reason, I cannot support her nomination.”
“Neera Tanden has neither the experience nor the temperament to lead this critical agency,” said Susan Collins of Maine, the most moderate Republican senator. “Her past actions have demonstrated exactly the kind of animosity that President Biden has pledged to transcend.”
“I think this is all cartoonish at this point,” said Podesta, who founded CAP. “They concede she’s qualified, so they all of a sudden are going to set a totally different standard for her about the way politics has been conducted over the last couple of years.”
Washington is undergoing an awkward realignment. Tanden’s confirmation hearings coincided with Trump’s impeachment trial, which meant senators weighing whether Tanden’s rude tweets should disqualify her from running the White House budget office were, at the same time, weighing whether Trump’s exhortations to his followers, march to the Capitol and “fight like hell” in the run-up to a deadly insurrection, should disqualify him from serving as president.
One of these senators was John Neely Kennedy, the Louisiana Republican. “It must suck to be that dumb,” he said of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at a 2019 rally with Trump.
“I have to tell you,” Kennedy told Tanden at her Feb. 10 hearing, “I’m very disturbed about your personal comments about people.”
By the end of their exchange, Tanden really did sound exhausted.
“Did you mean them when you said them,” Kennedy asked once again, “or were you not telling the truth?”
“I mean, I feel badly,” she said, stammering slightly, “I look back at them, I said them, I feel badly about them, I deleted tweets over a long period of time.”
“Are you saying that because you want to be confirmed?”
“No, I felt badly about them and deleted them.”
“Did you mean them when you said them?”
Tanden finally relented. “Senator, I must have meant them, but I really regret them.”
The drama over Neera Tanden’s nomination marks the first major power struggle in American politics since Washington closed the book on the Trump presidency and began to think of itself as a place where shame still works. Where apologies are expected, if not necessarily accepted.
A place where, yes, there is rhetoric that is too harsh for Ted Cruz.
It’s a tone-setting moment, and everybody has a reason to fight. Republicans might like to reclaim some moral high ground. Manchin might like to flex his muscles as the swing Democrat in the new 50-50 Senate. The Biden administration might like to show both factions that it won’t be pushed around.
“We’re fighting our guts out,” chief of staff Ron Klain said Wednesday in an interview on MSNBC.
As for Tanden, she’s always been up for a fight. But for all the talk of personal affronts, this fight may not be about her at all.