Tanden is amply qualified for the job. She is not accused of failing to pay her taxes or hiring an undocumented household worker. She is not on the ideological fringes. There has been no scandal in her personal life.
Her supposedly unpardonable sin is . . . incivility. Specifically, she used intemperate language on Twitter.
With the defection of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, her nomination looks to be sunk in the evenly divided Senate if she cannot win the support of at least one Republican.
It doesn’t help that many of the social media posts at issue were directed at senators themselves. Tanden referred to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as “Voldemort,” the Harry Potter villain, and “Moscow Mitch.” She labeled Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) “pathetic” and “the worst.” And she declared that “vampires have more heart than Ted Cruz,” the widely reviled Republican senator from Texas.
Granted, her tweets were rude and juvenile. But they were fairly tame compared with what one sees on Twitter every day. According to the media intelligence platform Zignal Labs, McConnell has been called “Moscow Mitch” on Twitter nearly 11.9 million times over the past two years.
Tanden has deleted the worst of her posts and apologized. Which is more than can be said for Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who in November tweeted this about Tanden and a clergyman who is now his Senate colleague from Georgia: “.@neeratanden’s tweets read like a @ReverendWarnock sermon: Filled with hate & guided by the woke left. Just as he’s unfit to serve in the U.S. Senate, she’s unfit to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.”
The sanctimony of Republican senators is newfound and rich, given how unstirred they were by the most powerful social media bully on earth leading their party from the White House for the past four years. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who has declared Tanden “radioactive,” said last June, after Donald Trump tweeted one of his egregiously false conspiracy theories: “You know a lot of this stuff just goes over my head.”
Manchin’s calculation here is a little less obvious. It may be that, coming from one of the reddest states, he feels the need to show some independence from the Biden administration.
But his stated reason, the “toxic and detrimental impact” of Tanden’s “overtly partisan statements,” is hard to take at face value.
Manchin, after all, voted in 2018 to confirm Richard Grenell as ambassador to Germany. He was apparently unconcerned — as were 55 of his Senate colleagues — with the diplomatic skills of a social media troll who in the past had tweeted that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “is starting to look like Madeleine Albright” and that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow should “take a breath and put on a necklace.” Grenell’s social media lowlights also included mocking the hairstyle of Callista Gingrich, who was later named Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican.
Nor has sharp-elbowed partisanship previously been a disqualifier for budget directors. Mick Mulvaney, confirmed 51 to 49 in 2017, helped found the hard-right Freedom Caucus in the House during his time as a South Carolina congressman. The lone Republican dissenter was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who cited Mulvaney’s past votes to slash defense spending — a legitimate difference over policy.
It seems fair to wonder whether sexism is a factor working against Tanden in the male-dominated Senate — or, as conservative strategist William Kristol put it, whether “these tweets sound harsher to these old guys because they’re coming from a woman.”
All of this has surprised the Biden White House. While its vetters were aware of Tanden’s tweets, they did not expect them to emerge as a major roadblock to installing the president’s pick for budget director during a national economic crisis. On the other hand, their fears of strong pushback from the left, stemming from Tanden’s frequent criticism of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have not materialized as a major threat.
For now at least, the president is standing behind Tanden, and White House officials gamely say they believe she still has a path to confirmation. They have stepped up lobbying efforts on her behalf, and Tanden herself has met with 44 senators so far to plead her case.
But given the general climate on social media, Republicans would do well to worry what might happen to a GOP president’s nominees in the future. If senators really want to usher in a new standard of civility, the first thing they might want to consider is whether it should begin with forgiveness.