One nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, is sailing toward confirmation as the next attorney general. Another,
Neera Tanden, is on the defensive as the nominee to become director of the Office of Management and Budget. What they share at this moment is the capacity of Republicans for compartmentalization and deliberate memory loss.
Garland was greeted warmly on Monday by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. During a day of testimony, various Republicans heaped praise on him and predicted he would have no trouble winning support, including theirs, to take over a troubled Justice Department at a time of great challenge.
Garland took on all manner of questions — friendly, pointed, philosophical, specific, general, sneaky. He displayed intellect, temperament, character and — in an exchange about how his grandparents’ fleeing religious persecution and immigrating to America shapes his commitment to give something back to this country — genuine emotion.
What was unspoken but circulating through the hearing room throughout the day was the fact that this was the same committee, and many of the same committee Republicans, who denied Garland so much as a hearing when he was nominated by President Barack Obama in early 2016 to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia.
Garland became the victim of a raw exercise of political power by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was majority leader at the time but now is minority leader. McConnell decided that he would hold open the Scalia seat until after the 2016 election, in the hope that the voters would elect a Republican president. No one then could have been certain that Donald Trump would even become the GOP nominee, let alone president.
Obama had selected Garland as an unprovocative nominee, not a young liberal firebrand but an experienced and respected jurist with a record of accomplishment and judicial temperament that in less partisan times would have won him overwhelming support.
Nonetheless, Republicans in the Senate fell in line behind McConnell, especially those on the Judiciary Committee. The shunning of Garland by Senate Republicans — no hearing, no vote in committee, never the thought of a vote on the floor — remains one of the crudest examples of pure partisanship in recent times.
All of that seemed forgotten on Monday, intentionally set aside for a few hours at least by the Republicans on the committee. The same qualities that Garland would have shown in a confirmation hearing five years ago and would have brought to the Supreme Court were grounds for praise in his new role as the nominee to lead the Justice Department. So it was never about qualifications in 2016.
Tanden’s situation is different. Her nomination is in deep trouble because of her sharp tongue on Twitter. Her penchant for political combat was regularly on display, especially during the Trump presidency.
As discourse on Twitter and other social media platforms grew ever more coarse, Tanden, who headed the Center for American Progress and its political action wing, was active. She held little back as she attacked opponents, most often Trump and others in the Republican Party. She also sparred regularly with loyalists to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whose Medicare-for-all proposal she opposed.
There is more to Tanden than her tweets. She has had a long history as a domestic policy analyst, particularly in the area of health care. She served on the domestic policy staff in the Clinton administration and as a health policy adviser in Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, where she helped shape what became the Affordable Care Act. She was an adviser on domestic policy to Hillary Clinton when Clinton was a senator and in Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Was her language on Twitter over the top? It was. She was a flamethrower on Twitter. She said that vampires “have more heart” than Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) was a fraud. She labeled McConnell “Voldemort” and “Moscow Mitch” and called Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) “the worst.” When she was nominated for the OMB post, she deleted hundreds of offending tweets, a decision that in retrospect has contributed to her problems.
In her confirmation hearing, Tanden was grilled about her tweets and issued an apology. “I do think the last several years have been very polarizing, and I apologize for my language that has contributed to that. I know it’s on me to demonstrate to this committee and to Republican members and Democratic members I can work with anyone.”
The irony, if it can be called that, is the degree to which Republican elected officials were able to ignore the thousands of offensive tweets by Trump during his years as president. Trump set a standard unmatched in politics for his use of Twitter to assault, belittle and degrade opponents. He reveled in sending out personal attacks. There is no doubt sexism is involved in the reaction to Tanden’s tweets, a reminder that a strong woman draws attacks that no man would under similar circumstances.
If giving offense on Twitter were the standard, Republicans should have abandoned Trump long ago. Instead, they looked the other way, pretending they never so much as read those tweets. Some Republicans say confirmation of Tanden would not help in the healing process the country needs, ignoring the principal cause of the need for national restoration: a president twice impeached, and twice acquitted with overwhelming support from his party.
Tanden has already lost one key Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, which means she needs Republican support to win confirmation in a 50-50 Senate. Collins and Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), two Republicans who might have been thought of as possible votes for Tanden, both have come out against her. (Romney, of course, has been the rare Republican to break with Trump.) Finding support from at least a few Republicans remains dicey. Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the president is standing by Tanden.
So Tanden’s nomination is clearly in doubt while Garland’s is not. Republicans may cite their own examples of where they think Democrats have applied double standards to justify their positions. But in this moment, a look in the mirror is in order.