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Opinion The opposition to confirming Neera Tanden is based on a lie

Many of the same Republicans who turned a blind eye to Donald Trump's controversial tweets slammed OMB director nominee Neera Tanden for her Twitter history. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

There are numerous reasons to mock the opposition to confirming Neera Tanden as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, which is supposedly rooted in anger over her harsh tweets about Republicans. It’s hypocritical. It has little to do with her qualifications. And there’s nothing wrong with appointing a partisan to begin with.

But perhaps the biggest flaw in the argument against Tanden is this one: It’s based on a lie.

That lie is the idea that the prospects for bipartisan comity in the Senate, and for good relations between Republicans and the Biden administration, rest in some sense on Tanden’s fate. They simply do not.

The senators who have announced opposition to Tanden — Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) — have all offered variations of that argument.

Manchin claims that instead of confirming Tanden, we must end “political division” and “chart a new bipartisan course.” Collins insists Tanden has “demonstrated exactly the kind of animosity that President Biden has pledged to transcend.” A Romney spokesperson claims Tanden’s “mean tweets” imperil the “return to comity and respect.”

As a terrific Post editorial points out, it’s absurd for Republicans to bellyache about partisan nastiness after four years of Trump. And it’s inconsistent for Manchin to do the same after voting for Trump nominees with their own histories of partisanship and aggressive social media combat.

And as the Post editorial notes, even if Tanden has been undiplomatic, it would be crazy to deny Biden his pick based solely on the fact that he has promised unity even as Trump deliberately promoted the opposite.

For now, I’d like to put aside another argument against Tanden — her long history of fighting with progressives — which does not appear to threaten her nomination by itself. For that argument, read this piece by David Klion.

But Klion, in the course of explaining the left’s case against Tanden, also argues that she deserves our sympathy. As Klion notes, s--tposting is a fact of contemporary political life, and shouldn’t be disqualifying. And the idea that incivility to Republicans should kill her nomination is entirely divorced from the reality of the past four years:

Sometimes incivility is exactly what the circumstances call for. There are many in Washington, especially in the centrist wings of both parties, who seem all too eager to brush aside the real stakes of politics now that we have a new administration. The last one, after all, was guilty of such incivilities as establishing concentration camps for refugee children on the border of Mexico or engaging in conspiratorial denialism about a deadly ongoing pandemic. There is no polite way to capture what Republicans in power have done and continue to do. Tanden can be fairly accused of many things, but she cannot be accused of being soft on the party that just gave us four years of Trump’s misrule, culminating in the attack on the US Capitol last month.

Still more fundamentally, the basic idea that bipartisan comity depends on what happens with Tanden is ridiculous.

Confirming Tanden would not in and of itself seriously aggravate partisan divisions. Sinking her nomination would not in and of itself seriously facilitate bipartisan comity.

In reality, the prospects for bipartisan cooperation depend, from the GOP side, largely on how much political pressure moderate Republicans feel to support aspects of Biden’s agenda. And from the Democratic side, those prospects depend on how much of their agenda Biden and Democrats are willing to trade away to achieve bipartisanship for its own sake.

Republicans are not going to suddenly be more open or inclined toward supporting that agenda if Tanden goes down. Similarly, they will not be substantially less open to supporting it if Tanden is confirmed. That’s not how the incentives work.

Republicans are incentivized to maintain as unified an opposition to Biden’s agenda as they can, because to whatever degree they can deny him bipartisan cooperation, they can cast him as a failed conciliator. As former Democratic Senate aide Adam Jentleson explained to Ezra Klein:

Republicans collectively don’t want to see President Biden standing at a signing ceremony with Mitt Romney, signing a bill that is going to massively slash child poverty because that’s not good for their political interests and their desire to take back their majorities in the 2022 midterms.

Republicans are incentivized to deny Biden bipartisan cooperation. There is no planet on which torpedoing Tanden would somehow reduce this incentive over the long term, even if Biden shouted his intention to offer her up as a human sacrifice to the Gods of Civility and Bipartisanship from atop the Capitol dome.

This doesn’t mean you won’t get GOP senators here or there working with Biden on, say, an expanded child tax credit or infrastructure. But that will be determined by what each senator decides about her political situation and desire to be seen working with the administration. Tanden’s fate, either way, will not seriously impact those calculations down the line.

Nor will any decision by Biden and Democrats to water down their agenda to win bipartisan cooperation be in any way influenced by what happens here. You can see Biden and Democrats exercising bipartisan civility by, say, soliciting GOP input on various bills. But the question of whether that will result in actual bipartisan cooperation won’t be even slightly influenced by Tanden’s fate.

The idea seems to be that sacrificing Tanden now might demonstrate good will from Democrats toward Republicans, and that this will somehow bank good will among Republicans toward them. But the incentives just don’t work this way. And every senator making this argument against Tanden — along with every journalist covering this debate — knows it.

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