Tanden is a loyal and, yes, sometimes combative Democrat, but she cares far more about policy than politics. And she knows and admires Republicans who feel the same way.
Never was this side of her more dramatically on display than in July 2017, when the Senate faced a vote that would determine whether the Affordable Care Act would live or die.
I was on the phone a lot with Tanden during that battle because she was as invested as anyone in getting health insurance to as many Americans as possible. She had worked on the issue as a young staffer in the Clinton administration and again in the Obama administration.
By the way, it was a sign of the respect around Washington for Tanden’s policy chops that even though she had been passionately committed to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign during the bitter Democratic primary in 2008, she was one of the very first Clinton campaign staff members that Barack Obama asked to join his general election effort. Obama saw in her what I hope some Republicans will see: a gifted and practical thinker about policy and how to make government work.
Things did not look good for Obamacare that July. The House had already passed a repeal bill and the Senate seemed on the verge of doing the same. On a critical procedural vote about whether to let the bill move forward, Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) had the courage to vote “no.” But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) disappointed supporters of the law by voting “yes” to continue the debate while giving a heartfelt and acidic speech about the shortcomings of congressional politics.
It was a dramatic moment because McCain returned to the floor after being diagnosed with brain cancer — and McCain’s was the decisive vote. It looked like Obamacare was dead, and McCain came in for some very tough criticism from liberals and the left.
But not from Tanden. When I called her that day, she said she thought the attacks on McCain were wrong. He had not made up his mind on whether to vote for repeal itself, she insisted. She spoke of her respect for McCain and her belief that, in the end, he would save Obamacare.
I trusted Tanden’s judgment, partly because of my own long-standing admiration for McCain but also because I knew from experience that she was a shrewd reader of Congress who called things as she saw them.
So when I wrote that day, I resisted the temptation to assail McCain, using the mild word “disappointing” to describe his vote. Then I added: “But McCain could yet advance the vision of the Senate he outlined in his floor speech and rebuke ‘the bombastic loudmouths’ he condemned by casting a ‘No’ vote at the crucial moment. Here’s hoping this war hero will ultimately choose to strike a blow against everything he said is wrong with Congress.”
And ultimately, that’s exactly what McCain did. With a famous thumbs-down on the final vote, he saved Obamacare.
I have always been grateful to Tanden not only for journalistic reasons — her information helped me write something that looks, well, pretty good in retrospect — but also, and more important, because she encouraged me to think the best of McCain.
Which is to say that Tanden is anything but a blind partisan.
And in all the talk about Tanden’s prolific tweeting, no one is discussing the tweets she sent after Murkowski, Collins and McCain preserved health coverage for tens of millions of Americans. One of them read: “We are all cynical but some times political leaders do the right thing. Thank you @SenJohnMcCain, @lisamurkowski @SenatorCollins.”
Tanden specifically praised Murkowski in another tweet before the vote. “On @lisamurkowski, members of the GOP threatened her state and threatened her directly. I don’t believe she will fold.” Tanden was right about this, too.
I’d like to hope that fair-minded Republican senators — some, including Murkowski, are still undecided as I write — will examine Tanden’s whole record and realize that she is a lot more than the sum of her tweets. At a critical moment, she gave a great Republican senator the benefit of the doubt. That’s what I think she deserves this time around.