When sifting through the wreckage to try to make sense of this epoch, future anthropologists should dust off whatever records will be preserved about Neera Tanden’s star-crossed nomination to an obscure-but-powerful White House office.
The whole episode is a museum-ready diorama in miniature illustrating so many things that died in the transition from democracy to oligarchy. And in this affair, all the politicians, pundits, news outlets and Democratic party apparatchiks involved are very blatantly telling on themselves.
Tanden is being nominated to run the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the federal budget. As a political operative and head of a corporate-funded thinktank, she does not have especially relevant experience for the appointment – in fact, whether in gubernatorial administrations, mayoral offices or Capitol Hill budget committees, there are far more qualified experts for this gig.
Moreover, her particular record would raise significant red flags as a job applicant for even a mid-level management position in any organization, much less the White House: during her tenure running the Center for American Progress, she reportedly outed a sexual harassment victim and physically assaulted an employee. While she was running the organization, CAP raked in corporate and foreign government cash and a report was revised in a way that helped a billionaire donor avoid scrutiny of his bigoted policing policy. Critics allege that Tanden busted a union of journalists. And she floated social security cuts when Democrats in Congress were trying to stop them.
Even if you discount Tanden’s infamous statement about Libya and oil, as well as her vicious crusade against Senator Bernie Sanders and the progressive base of the Democratic party, all of these other items would seem to disqualify Tanden for a job atop a Democratic administration that claims to respect expertise and want to protect women, workers’ rights, social programs and government ethics.
From the beginning, every single Democratic senator could have simply cited Biden’s promise to be the “most pro-union president” and stated that they would not vote to confirm anyone accused of undermining a union. Or they could have said that they are not going to allow someone who runs a corporate-funded thinktank – and whose nomination is being boosted by one of the most diabolical corporate lobbying groups in Washington – to be in charge of the White House office that can grant government ethics waivers. At the absolute barest minimum, these issues should have been major topics of discussion in her confirmation hearings and in the news media.
But the opposite has happened. This record is almost nowhere to be found in the discourse. Instead, the central topic of discussion is Tanden’s late-night, out-of-control rage-tweeting.
On the right, the Republican party of troll-in-chief Donald Trump is pretending that Tanden’s online rhetoric – rather than her record – is disqualifying.
On the left, the Democratic noise machine is calling out the Republican party’s hypocrisy, while wrongly pretending that Tanden is a victim. These self-righteous Tanden defenders have gone completely silent about her actual record.
Meanwhile, save for a few bits of solid policy-focused reporting, journalists are mostly hounding senators to get their reactions to Tanden’s tweets rather than asking them about her past behavior. Some media folk are even promoting the Neera-As-Victim mythology, somehow disregarding and distracting attention from Tanden’s alleged attack on a union of journalists.
As evidenced by her record, Tanden is a victim in the same way war is peace, which is to say that she is not a victim, she is a perpetrator. But the Republican party, the Democratic party and the Washington media machine will not allow the record documenting that basic, verifiable, indisputable reality to be reviewed, litigated or considered. The debate is being deliberately ramrodded into a conversation about her online etiquette, which has absolutely no relevance to the actual appointment (and I say that as an occasional target of Tanden’s Twitter vitriol).
All of this is a grotesque form of erasure. Democratic politicians, Beltway Liberals, and media voices are not merely swatting away, rationalizing or justifying Tanden’s record on the merits, they are doing something worse: they are trying to memory-hole Tanden’s record and pretend it doesn’t exist, even though she laid waste to the same liberal causes these defenders purport to care about.
Moreover, the Tanden brigade – and their online army now bullying reporters with racist vitriol – are cynically relying on a political and media environment that will allow such memory-holing to take place. They are banking on the brute force of their own denialist propaganda and a miasma of distracting misinformation to make sure that nobody recognizes that they are exposing themselves. They are making clear that their hope for career advancement, their desire for White House access, and their personal connections to a thinktank powerbroker are more important to them than any social cause.
Taken together, such behaviors represent more than the death of expertise. They signify the premeditated murder of the most basic facts that are supposed to inform democratic decision-making.
The motives here are unstated but obvious: nobody in either party or in the Washington media wants to center Tanden’s nomination on her actual record, because if that record becomes disqualifying for career advancement in Washington, it could set a precedent jeopardizing the personal career prospects of every creature slithering through the Washington swamp.
Indeed, if corruption, mismanagement, bullying, union busting and let-them-eat-cake-style austerity ideology are suddenly perceived negatively, then all the real-life Veep characters in Washington – the politicians, operatives and media elites who’ve spent their whole lives angling for fancy White House titles – could be out of luck.
Appreciating the power of this tribal motivation is crucial, because it accounts for why Democrats seem to be spending as much or more political capital on trying to rescue Tanden’s nomination than on enacting policies to rescue Americans from an economic disaster. That’s no overstatement: the White House has signaled it is working the phones and pulling out all the stops for the OMB nominee at the very same time the administration is signaling a potential pre-emptive retreat on the minimum wage and a willingness to limit promised survival checks.
Such skewed priorities and misguided decisions might seem inexplicable to those future anthropologists looking back at this moment. However, it will all make perfect sense to them if they understand that the Tanden affair exemplifies how in this era of end-stage democracy, the first and foremost priority of the effete political elite wasn’t helping millions of people, it wasn’t defending the progressive agenda, and it wasn’t even ensuring electoral success.
It was something deeper, more tribal, and more corrupt: swamp self-preservation.
David Sirota is a Guardian US columnist and an award-winning investigative journalist. He is an editor at large at Jacobin, and the founder of the Daily Poster. He served as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign speechwriter