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In the end, it wasn’t any one tweet that disqualified Neera Tanden from joining President Joe Biden’s Cabinet. It was the entire platform that is punishing the seasoned Washington player.
Biden had tapped Tanden, the head of the liberal Center for American Progress, to run the low-visibility, high-power Office of Management and Budget. But from the start, Senators from both parties took issue with some of the text rockets fired from her Twitter app in recent years, turning the often late-night missives into a test of her fitness to run the biggest piece of the Executive Office of the President.
In a move long expected, anticipated here in The D.C. Brief back on Dec. 1, Tanden yesterday asked Biden to withdraw her nomination.
This morality play that has been unfolding over weeks in Washington has a few key takeaways: Twitter can block not just a user but also a career path, and the obsession over social media’s value may be cripplingly over-stated in politics.
Much can be written about the disconnect between Tanden’s welcoming personality and her combative persona, not to mention just how much her gender and race played a role in the opposition to her confirmation. (Tanden would have been the first woman of color to run OMB.) And the opposition’s claim that she is too partisan to do her job does require some intentional blind spots, such as missives the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne noted in his column just last week.
After Tanden lost the support of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, her nomination had to pick up the backing of at least one Republican. That put a harsh focus on Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, whom Tanden had praised back in 2017. The pair met yesterday to discuss the nomination, and shortly after Tanden withdrew, and went to bed a failed nominee.
But the Tanden nomination saga says so much more about what’s happening in Washington right now. Tanden’s problem wasn’t that she sent mean tweets. It was that for too many in Washington, mean tweets have become the primary currency, and a substitute for substance. Snark and a shiv carry more weight that the nuanced policy arguments about the cost of a bill or the benefits of a regulation. If an idea can’t be communicated immediately — far too often sans filter or editor — and in a way that others want to augment or scream about, then there’s really no value to it in some corners. If your boss wants booked on a primetime cable show, they now audition for the bookers via Twitter. Did President Donald Trump teach us nothing?
Consider the stretch around the July 4 holiday in 2015, just as Trump was in his first weeks as a declared contender for the Republicans’ presidential nod. Trump was drawing nonstop social-media snark for losing his deals with NBC and Macy’s for racist language about Mexicans and immigrants. Meanwhile, former Governor of Texas and presidential hopeful Rick Perry delivered what I still argue was the finest speech of that GOP primary season, about his party’s legacy on race. Yet Perry couldn’t get the time of day, and dropped out after 99 days.
It’s easy to see how the cycle rewards bad behavior. Provocation yields more followers on social media, which in turn gives your viewpoint a bigger platform, which in turn brings more critics, if not trolls. Engaging the critics and trolls begets more attention. Now anyone can book themselves on the ghost of CNN’s canceled shout-match Crossfire as long as someone with a sizable platform is willing to engage.
Defenders of this dynamic rightly will note this is breaking down barriers for new voices to rise through the mainstream media’s filters. It’s taken the gate-keeper role away from newsroom editors and giving a platform to the true members of a democracy. And that the answer to bad speech isn’t to silence them but to bring more speech to prove them wrong. That’s the optimist’s way of looking at how Washington works right now.
Almost a decade ago, my friend Peter Hamby offered the less rosy view after spending time at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center working on a project about the 2012 presidential race and social media. His findings — still as valuable today they were in 2013 — share a view “sharply critical of Twitter’s impact on Washington journalism, specifically the cynical tone of the online conversation and its preoccupation with insider gossip and process stories.”
Twitter has made things no better in the time since. In fact, for the last few years, every time I speak with the head of a well-known centrist think tank, our talks always come back to some variation of “Twitter is not real life.” And Third Way’s Jonathan Cowan is right when he says that progressive Twitter is a very loud and concentrated slice of the Democratic Party, but that’s not where the entire debate is playing out. During the 2020 primary, online darlings like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and businessman Andrew Yang struggled to convert hashtags to votes. It turns out memes don’t knock on doors in Des Moines.
Tanden was an active part of this universe. The difference between her and some of its other Beltway inhabitants is that Tanden, a former aide to Bill and Hillary Clinton and senior official in the Barack Obama Administration, had the substance to back up her combative style. Ultimately, that didn’t matter to her opponents, who wanted to make her tone on social media disqualifying on its own merits. After years of ignoring Trump’s social-media belligerence, suddenly civility mattered.
Yesterday Biden accepted that Tanden needed to exit the confirmation churn. She’s unlikely to go far, though. In a statement thanking Tanden for putting herself through the grinder, Biden suggested she would be joining the administration in some unnamed capacity. Every White House is unique so there’s no telling what role he might create for Tanden, but she certainly knows her way around the building.
In the end, two things are certain. It’s better to have an experienced hand like Tanden providing her counsel in private and from under the roof than on cable news launching her critiques. And her return to Twitter will almost certainly be under a tighter filter.
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