It was bound to happen, and I’m honestly surprised it took this long: the first Very Online woman is facing US Senate confirmation. And she may not make it through.
The woman is Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress think tank, and Joe Biden’s nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Tanden is also a prolific tweeter, and over the years has raised the hackles of right-wingers and leftists alike.
On Wednesday, two hearings to vote on Tanden’s confirmation were postponed, and the White House is reportedly assessing other candidates for the role. None of that bodes well for Tanden’s nomination — or for any women who also have strong opinions, don’t always meet feminine expectations, and didn’t spend their whole lives being small and cautious in preparation for a Senate confirmation hearing.
But there’s something disconcerting about the “she’s mean on Twitter” rap being pinned on her, beginning with the obvious hypocrisy.
They also gave a pass to Trump’s own Twitter-abusing appointees. Take Ric Grenell, for example, formerly both the Acting Director of National Intelligence and US Ambassador to Germany.
But in 2018, the GOP had no problem with approving Grenell’s diplomatic appointment.
Social media behavior should certainly not be off limits for either political appointees or candidates. How one behaves online reflects both one’s views and one’s judgment. But it is telling to see who is held to what standard.
Tanden’s tweets are not nearly as egregious or insulting as the former President’s — or Ric Grenell’s. Yet many Republicans are arguing that they reveal her as too partisan and too quick to insult. And while Sanders’s surrogate Fox complained that Tanden “causes ire unnecessarily,” I suspect the same complaint could be leveled at a great many progressives who are big (and much needed) thorns in the sides of prominent Democrats.
One difference between Tanden and Grenell is that she’s a liberal, and so expectations for good behavior are simply higher. Another is that she’s a woman, and so there is the retrograde expectation that she will be a nice peacemaker: Combative women are particularly unloved, while combative men often earn respect.
But whatever you think of Tanden there’s more at stake here than just her nomination. She is simply the first person whose prolific and controversial social media presence is complicating her confirmation.
Which poses an important question: How do we want people who are politically engaged and passionate to behave online?
One answer is “perfectly.”
In that case, prepare yourself for a future of hyper-elite rule, where the only people who are able to get through the confirmation process are those who have been planning for a career in politics since they were 12, who had parents and connections sophisticated enough to teach them exactly how to get there, and who were willing to cede full participation in public debates and rein in intellectual risk-taking, and the growth that brings, in order to pursue their desired career.
Another answer to the question is “imperfectly, within reasonable bounds.”
To be clear: Someone who is trolling and abusive on Twitter (ahem, Ric Grenell) or someone who uses social media to spread lies, conspiracy theories, and racist resentment (ahem, the former President) is unfit for public office.
But someone who occasionally has bad takes, who sometimes gets into heated but sincere arguments, and who is “combative” because they give a damn — but who is not a liar, a fraud, or a troll — is perhaps the kind of person who we do want in positions of power.
It’s one thing to disagree with Tanden politically and ideologically; that is certainly fair game. But the American people chose Joe Biden as president, and as president he really should get to pick the members of his own team — so long as they’re qualified for the job, which Tanden is. A Yale-educated lawyer, she served as policy director for then Sen. Hillary Clinton, was the domestic policy director for the Obama-Biden campaign and was a senior adviser for health reform in Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services. She helped draft the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Branding her a Twitter meanie whose online sparring makes her unfit for duty is hypocritical and dishonest, coming as it does from some of the rudest people on Twitter, and others who have thrown their support behind the most famous Twitter abuser of them all.
This article has been updated from an earlier version to reflect the latest news on Neera Tanden’s confirmation hearings for director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Biden administration.