Progressives have finally found something they like about Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV): his defiance against Neera Tanden.
Over the past several days, liberal activists have lauded Manchin’s decision to vote against Tanden, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, in public and private, creating something that resembles an unholy ad hoc alliance between the left and the leading conservative Democrat they revile in Congress.
The camaraderie isn’t expected to last long. It only applies to a very specific situation, for a very brief period of time, to garner a very specific result, progressives say. They have made their opposition to Manchin clear. And they’re aware of the irony. What it does represent, however, is one of the sharper twists to emerge early into the Biden administration, when the two wings of the Democratic Party have independently converged to take down a shared target.
“This is a great example of Sen. Manchin doing the right thing for the wrong reasons,” said Shane Assadzandi, a county party official in West Virginia. “Leave it to him to do that.”
In declaring that he would vote against Tanden on Friday, the two-term senator bucked many elected officials who expressed pleasure about pushing her through a pair of Senate confirmation hearings earlier this month. He also effectively gave permission to two moderate Republicans to strike down Tanden altogether, setting off a frenzy of conversations over the weekend and into this week between the White House and Congress over process, bi-partisanship, and Biden’s ability to make an increasingly uncertain OMB Director Tanden a reality. “Clearly, Senator Manchin’s public statement makes this a challenge,” acknowledged Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), a top Biden ally.
Privately, some progressives rejoiced amid all the chatter.
“It sounds like her nomination is probably not going to go through." said Assadzandi. “For that, I am grateful.”
For Manchin, the main issue is Tanden’s extensive history of launching harsh critiques on Twitter. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) joined him in that sentiment, citing prior attacks as the reason for opposing her, without referencing that they had often withheld criticisms when Trump used divisive rhetoric.
Progressives—who frequently employ Twitter as their own preferred platform to vent—insist they care less about her past tweeting than what they view as her bad policies. During both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, Tanden and leftists fought vigorously online, but she also broadened her scope well beyond the left.
On Monday, Romney, through a spokesperson, said that he has “been critical of extreme rhetoric from prior nominees, and this is consistent with that position. He believes it’s hard to return to comity and respect with a nominee who has issued a thousand mean tweets.”
The phrase “a thousand mean tweets” is distinct. At the end of December, The Daily Beast reported that Tanden deleted over 1,000 personal tweets, many of which were strongly worded against figures in the Senate whose votes could tank her nomination. She was subsequently questioned about the deletions by Republican senators during her hearings. As the White House now scrambles to save Tanden, and she attempts to continue to make amends, the scenario she appeared to be trying to avoid is playing out in real-time.
Sharing a similar tone to Romney, Collins wrote in a statement that “Tanden has neither the experience nor the temperament to lead this critical agency,” adding that “her past actions have demonstrated exactly the kind of animosity that President Biden has pledged to transcend.”
The Biden administration has clung tightly to the prospect of a promotion for Tanden, pledging to find a way to keep her nomination afloat. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, reiterated her confidence in their choice, essentially shrugging off questions about new developments that could imperil her pathway.
“Neera Tanden is an accomplished policy expert who would be an excellent budget director and we look forward to the committee votes this week and to continuing to work toward her confirmation through engagement with both parties,” Psaki said.
The White House has pointed to Tanden’s breakneck meet-and-greet schedule with Republican and Democratic senators, which now numbers at meetings with 44 senators—including 15 senators just since Friday. Tanden is being shepherded through her Senate introductions by Lisa Strikowsky Gillman, a process on which the White House is clearly relying in the hopes that Tanden might be able to woo a getable Republican like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
That outreach might not be moving at the pace required, however. Murkowski told reporters on Capitol Hill on Monday that she has not yet heard from Tanden or the White House about setting up a meeting. (In response to a question about that apparent oversight, Psaki told reporters on Tuesday that the White House would not “provide day-by-day updates on exactly each senator and office that we’ve communicated with” on Tanden’s nomination). The same day, Biden simply added, “We’re going to push. We still think there’s a shot, a good shot.”
But outside of the West Wing’s rah-rah operation, outside advisers with close involvement in the administration’s legislative priorities told The Daily Beast that they see Tanden as a casualty of the administration’s “go fast go far” approach to the American Rescue Plan.
“I think they rightly made the calculation that two or three months of negotiation would have led to only two or three Republican votes” on the COVID relief bill, one stakeholder in the plan said. “And the cost of that may be losing two or three confirmation battles for positions like OMB.”
In Congress, Manchin’s role in helping to possibly defeat a disliked figure on the left should not be mistaken as a growing fondness for him. The senator is seen by many progressives as one of the chief thorns in getting major legislation passed through the upper chamber they now control, most recently on the issue of a minimum wage increase. For a brief period, he also appeared to consider the idea of not backing an additional $1,400 coronavirus stimulus check.
“We shouldn’t be praising Joe Manchin generally,” said Ben Spielberg, a California-based activist. “It’s totally great that Tanden’s nomination might get sunk and him contributing to that is a positive thing. But that shouldn’t delude anybody into thinking that Manchin is an ally of social justice advocates.”
For progressives, the main problems with Tanden and Manchin come down to what many decry as detrimental policy prescriptions. In that regard, Tanden represents a small piece of a larger ethos pushed over decades by the Clintons, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, one of her most loyal and prominent allies. Activists and elected officials on the left widely view Tanden’s role as the CEO of the Center for American Progress, a top moderate policy think tank, as having stifled some of the most fundamental aspects of their agenda. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee with whom Tanden has often clashed, criticized the organization’s involvement with corporate donors during her confirmation hearing.
“Punching down against people throughout the D.C. policy space is an inherent problem in and of itself,” Spielberg said. “I think it really limits the degree to which people speak out in favor of social justice candidates and policies.”
Preparing for the Senate vote, which has yet to be scheduled, some progressive networks have escalated their public campaigns against Tanden. In an email, Roots Action said they have mobilized around bombarding senators’ inboxes with constituent emails raising concerns about Tanden. The group pre-planned a Twitter barrage, in classic Tanden style, knocking her, complete with a “toolkit” of templates to copy and paste to amplify their grievances. “Tell Senator Bernie Sanders to #RejectTanden,” read one graphic circulated by the organization. Sanders has not answered directly about how he will vote.
Others on the left, however, dismiss the notion that Tanden’s possible elevation to a top administration position is much of a problem beyond the beltway. “I don’t think rural West Virginians give a damn about Neera Tanden’s tweets or Joe Manchin posturing on them,” said Stephen Smith, a self-avowed “rural populist.”
“I can’t think of a single working-class person I have heard mention any of this,” he said.
Smith, who founded a grassroots organization West Virginia Can’t Wait, is working against much of Manchin and Tanden’s moderate end-goals. He’s one of a growing group of leaders on the left, including former staffers to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), setting the groundwork for more robust political activity opposing Manchin the state.
“This sort of establishment obsession with who gets the next cool job in Washington is exactly the reason why people in West Virginia have given up on politics,” Smith said.