Their disingenuousness, and their apparent belief that they are very special snowflakes who deserve special deference, is at the heart of the movement to prevent her confirmation. But tweets really aren’t what has put her nomination in peril — and it’s not just Republicans imperiling her. Tanden, a highly qualified candidate to be Biden’s budget director, is being swamped by a perfect storm of bipartisan hypocrisy.
She should be enjoying bipartisan support: Republicans don’t agree with Tanden’s policy preferences, but she has the kind of bootstraps personal story that conservatives usually cheer. Born to immigrant parents, she went to Yale Law School en route to a career capped by helming the Center for American Progress, arguably the most influential Democratic think tank. She has personal experience with some of the safety-net programs within OMB’s purview — her mother relied on government benefits to keep the family afloat when Tanden was young.
Democrats are notoriously hard to please, but she’s squarely in her party’s mainstream — to the left of Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.); to the right of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who now chairs the Senate Budget Committee.
Yet even a moderate Republican such as Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) says she won’t vote to confirm Tanden, based in part on her “temperament.” Manchin, the first Democrat to announce that he would withhold support, cited Tanden’s “public statements and tweets” and “overtly partisan statements.” Sanders is expected to vote to confirm her, but his support has been tepid at best.
Concern about Tanden’s tweets is rich, coming from Collins and other Republicans, whose party is in thrall to a former president who was banned from Twitter; and from Manchin, who voted to confirm several of Trump’s most acerbic nominees. Speaking for many observers, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), leader of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus said flatly, “There’s a double standard going on.”
L’Affaire Tanden shows the extent to which the two parties play by different rules. Caustic tweets are nothing new. But they didn’t stop Richard Grenell from becoming Trump’s ambassador to Germany. Grenell has used Twitter to hector journalists and mock the appearance of female politicians. His reputation as a hack and a bully was known for years. He was confirmed anyway. Trump once lashed out at four congresswomen of color by tweeting that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from where they came.” Some Republicans expressed dismay, but for the most part, they let that slide. And only 11 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted with Democrats to strip committee assignments from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has used various social media platforms to peddle extremist rhetoric.
By her own admission, Tanden has let some harsh tweets fly. But she has apologized, while many ill-mannered Republicans haven’t. When it comes to civility, Republicans simply raise the floor for Democrats, as they allow members of their own party to sink ever lower. What stands out most from Tanden’s confirmation hearings isn’t what she’s tweeted, but the hypocrisy of Republicans reaching for their smelling salts.
That hypocrisy is papering over their real objection: Tanden’s politics. Underlying the mean-tweet accusations is the reality that GOP senators don’t like her views. But elections have consequences, and that’s how this works: When Trump was in office, he appointed senior officials whose views were well outside the norm, and received broad senatorial deference. Back in the ’80s, Jeff Sessions’s comments on race kept the Senate from confirming him for a federal judgeship; in 2017, he was confirmed as Trump’s attorney general.
And while Manchin may have a “D” next to his name, he’s hitching a ride on the Republican line. He dinged Tanden for being too partisan. But like many previous presidential nominees from the left and right, she has spent her career in partisan politics — a progressive Democrat working for progressive goals. She has referred to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as “Voldemort” and called Collins “the worst.” Not nice, but not so far from the median political tweet on any given day. As even lock-step, Trump-supporting Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt realizes, Tanden isn’t up for a policy-agnostic position, so it’s absurd to expect her to be nonpartisan. OMB “is almost an extension of the White House staff,” Hewitt wrote, and Tanden has spent her career in the “public fray” that “exists to elevate presidents and parties.”
The bad-faith criticisms of her are of a piece with Trump’s repeated attacks on “nasty” women. And this confirmation battle makes clear that many senators share the same gender and racial hang-ups as Trump, who bristled in interactions with confident women and surrounded himself with underperforming White men. It’s not hard to surmise that the online rudeness that Tanden’s critics object to boils down to the assumed impropriety of an outspoken woman of color seeking power.
As Tanden is publicly shamed and potentially out of a job, women of color like her are simultaneously on the receiving end of online harassment much worse than anything she’s dished out. Vice President Harris is now a top target for online harassment, experts say, because of her race, gender and position. Republican senators (and Manchin) may not be firing off online invective at Tanden. But they’re falling back on the same biases by raising spurious concerns that don’t seem to apply to the adversarial style of Sanders — or to the overheated style of one Manchin campaign ad, in which he pulls a bullet from his pocket before taking “dead aim” and firing a rifle at a copy of an environmental bill fixed to a target.
Collins said “Tanden has neither the experience nor the temperament to lead this critical agency.” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) tsk-tsked Tanden’s alleged lack of comity. Animosity toward successful women isn’t unique to Republicans — researchers have long documented that female leaders are rarely perceived as both competent and likable. Often, the more a woman is competitive or assertive, the more she is seen as having “temperament” issues. And it’s particularly galling that Collins’s comments come from a senator who voted to install Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, despite Kavanaugh using his own Senate confirmation hearing to intemperately berate the senators questioning him.
Another reason Tanden remains out to sea: She is broadly seen as a Hillary Clinton loyalist finding her way in an Obama-Biden world. She alienated her party’s left wing by vocally and at times combatively supporting Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Partly as a result of that fight, there isn’t much of a leftist push to confirm her now. Just like so many other competent and ambitious women before her, Tanden is divisive, even on the left.
So far, Biden is sticking with her, but this episode reveals an uncomfortable truth: As long as we expect women to be accommodating while rewarding male leaders who are aggressive and even cantankerous, “temperament,” exemplified by some impolitic tweets, will remain an embarrassing and transparent justification for keeping women out of power. When politicians treat their own discomfort with mouthy women as a putatively objective standard for polite behavior, it becomes appallingly easy to muzzle assertive, capable women and to sell it as a return to decorum.