Election 2020 Politics

So what is the Neera Tanden standard?

In recent days, three key swing votes in that 50-50 Senate announced they wouldn’t vote for her: Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah). Without Manchin’s vote, in particular, Tanden’s confirmation suddenly becomes very difficult. Tanden will now need at least one GOP vote, but Collins’s and Romney’s ensuing statements suggest that will be tough to wrangle, given any other Republican who crosses party lines would now come in for significant criticism as the potentially decisive vote.

This has led to charges of hypocrisy and a new standard. In particular, many Republicans who now appear primed to vote against Tanden’s nomination often turned a blind eye to former president Donald Trump’s controversial tweets (or claimed they hadn’t seen them).

But perhaps more significantly — and more applicable in this current circumstance — all Republicans and both Manchin and Collins voted for a Trump nominee with a checkered social-media past. Richard Grenell in 2018 was Trump’s nominee to become ambassador to Germany. He was later elevated to a much-higher post for a brief time: the acting director of national intelligence. And he too was a very partisan warrior on Twitter, often going further than many lawmakers in deriding the opposition.

But how analogous are the two situations?

Some of the most oft-cited past Tanden tweets include her calling Collins “the worst.” She attacked Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) as a fraud, said vampires have “more heart” than Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and she latched on to a very-online effort to label then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as “Moscow Mitch.”

Tanden also leaned in to ideas about Russia’s 2016 election interference that were more conspiratorial than the evidence suggested. As a Hillary Clinton supporter in 2016, she referred to legitimate intelligence that said Russia had favored Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. But she also suggested that perhaps Russia might have changed vote totals to swing the election, for which there is no evidence.

It was all enough to lose the support of key senators.

Manchin’s statement focused on her past comments, saying, “I believe her overtly partisan statements will have a toxic and detrimental impact on the important working relationship between members of Congress and the next director of the Office of Management and Budget.”

Collins cited both the tweets and her alleged lack of qualifications, while adding: “Her past actions have demonstrated exactly the kind of animosity that President Biden has pledged to transcend.”

Collins’s statement makes a significant point: That, depending upon how you view Tanden’s comments, this kind of derision and division was the kind of thing Biden campaigned expressly against. (Trump, by contrast, made few bones about his intent to push a more extreme agenda.)

But beyond that, there’s the matter of whether the tweets were truly disqualifying. They were, after all, what Manchin cited as his overriding motivation to vote against Tanden. And both he and Collins voted for Grenell.

Grenell’s tweets first came to the fore in 2012, when he was elevated to a top aide to then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign. This was met with criticism from some social conservatives, because Grenell is gay, but also Democrats because Grenell was a combative presence on social media, often deriding the appearances of women with whom he disagreed, among other attacks on politicians he didn’t like.

Among Grenell’s Twitter pursuits:

  • He said MSNBC hose Rachel Maddow looked like Justin Bieber and should “take a breath and put on a necklace.”
  • He said Clinton was beginning to look like former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.
  • He talked about Michelle Obama exercising and “sweating on the East Room carpet.”
  • He asked of Newt Gingrich’s wife, Callista, whether her “hair snaps on” and said that Gingrich’s third wife “stands there like she is wife #1.” He also asked, “does callista speak?”
  • He made fun of Newt Gingrich’s weight.
  • He attacked then-President Barack Obama for his use of a TelePrompTer, saying, “Without a teleprompter, Oh-bahh-mahhh isss ahhh slowww and weakkk speakerrrr ahhhh …#syria.” He also said of Obama, “Hating people who make more than you is the product of having a community organizer as president. #AnyoneButObama”

Grenell was dinged for these tweets in 2012. He apologized for (and deleted) many of them, saying they were meant to be funny but might have failed on that count.

“It’s certainly never my intention to hurt anyone’s feelings,” Grenell said during his 2017 confirmation hearing. “Anybody who knows me knows that I am very caring person and very sensitive person, and I also appreciate good humor. Unfortunately, there are times where what was intended to be humorous turned out to be not so humorous.”

His output in the years between then 2012 and his 2018 confirmation was more focused on attacking the media, but in that distinction, there were few parallels in conservative social media. Grenell was a particularly brutal combatant — to the point where journalist Daniel Dale remarked upon his confirmation that, for the first time, “a Twitter troll has been made an ambassador.”

But there are key differences between the Grenell and Tanden situations.

One is the target of their tweets. Both clearly delved into partisan politics in a way few nominees do — something a future high-level nominee might do well to avoid, given the confirmation process and a potentially tight Senate. But Tanden’s tweets were more targeted at the actual senators whose votes she would one day be forced to rely upon.

Another is the gravity of the office. Grenell’s confirmation hearing was relatively brief. Germany is an important ally, but Democratic senators — with the exception of Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) — didn’t really put up a concerted fight at his confirmation hearing based upon his past comments. This allowed Grenell to briefly ascend to much higher office when he became acting DNI, but it wasn’t like he was initially chosen to serve in a high-ranking administration position.

The focus on Tanden’s tweets makes plenty of sense in the context of the office to which she’s nominated and the president nominating her for that post. Indeed, some wagered that perhaps she was put forward to give Republicans (and perhaps Manchin, in a very red state) something to vote against, rather than other nominees. Perhaps this gives them more latitude in the future to support Biden’s agenda.

But it begs for a declared standard when it comes to who is confirmation-worthy. Can someone be extremely partisan but not attack senators? Is it okay for someone to attack someone’s appearance on social media and still be confirmed? And how much are apologies for past statements operative?

Whatever one think of Tanden’s qualifications, it’s a valid question. But it might have arrived too late for her nomination.

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