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It’s Good to Know What You Can Get Away With in Washington

Neera Tanden's tweets were far from the worst thing about her.

neera tanden
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Here is an embarrassing story about myself. For many years, I assumed that a “petard” was some kind of sword or bladed weapon, and imagined that the phrase “hoisted by your own petard” involved some kind of medieval rake-stepping moment where you accidentally stab yourself. To my great shame, I learned from a group chat today that it is not. A petard, aptly named from the Middle French “péter” which means fart, is a type of small bomb that was attached to gates, doors or walls in order to blast them open during the siege of a castle. The phrase, then, refers to someone being blown upwards (hoisted) in the air by the explosive force of their own petard, which in this case refers to a bomb, but could also refer to a fart if you think about it. Shakespeare was a pretty funny guy it turns out.

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Neera Tanden Was Finally Made to Answer for Her Crime of Bad Tweets

That brings us to Neera Tanden, a woman whose career was singularly defined by the placing of petards. I say “was” in past tense, both aspirationally in that I hope she goes away forever, and to reflect the fact that her current nomination to serve as President Joe Biden’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget appears pretty much dead in the water.

Tanden is in this position because of her petards, which in this case were her many, many, many extremely bad tweets, which are now hoisting her, as Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Joe Manchin have all indicated they will not support her confirmation. All have made it extremely clear what their reasoning is for not supporting her nomination.

“He believes it’s hard to return to comity and respect with a nominee who has issued a thousand mean tweets,” Romney’s press secretary Arielle Mueller said in a statement, per Roll Call.

This is true. I do not want this blog to downplay how bad Tanden’s tweets are, because they are truly terrible. But it’s also funny to me what you can and can’t get away with in Washington. Like Donald Trump, Tanden’s most lasting public record may be a largely incoherent Twitter feed filled with personal grudges and absolutely no restraint, but her actual impact on the realm of politics was as just another creature serving the hypocritical, nonsensical status quo of her chosen party.

For example, as political cartoonist Matt Bors pointed out, it’s telling that Tanden’s well-documented history of deliberately union-busting at her think tank’s own publication, Think Progress wasn’t a problem for the Biden administration, which ran on its support of organized labor. Nor is it a concern to anyone involved that she once suggested that Libya use its oil money to pay us back for our military intervention in the country (that’s the quiet part, Neera, you’re not supposed to say that bit).

It’s also funny that the red line for Romney and the assorted “moderate Republicans” isn’t that Tanden is a Clinton-administration lifer (although her possible ties to that administration’s disastrous implementation of welfare reform are probably a plus in his book), but that she was frequently uncouth online. That’s Washington, baby! You can work for years on a career that establishes little ideological consistency other than your own personal pursuit of power, but the thing that will come back to bite you is your shitposts online.

Tanden’s nomination was a perfect bellwether for the administration that now leads us (which, to be fair, is still trying to make her appointment happen). Here she was, finally getting her due. A cushy government post. It wasn’t the chief of staff gig she wanted under Hillary Clinton, but the OMB could be a springboard for more. Finally! She would move from the relatively undignified but lucrative (for her) nonprofit world to the Halls of Power (or at least the Corridors of the Office of Management and Budget). Her history of private animus and political idiocy was not a problem. The Biden administration had smoothed over far worse: his nominee for Secretary of Defense was on the board at Raytheon, his Secretary of State raked in money lobbying for tech surveillance companies, Rahm Emmanuel is still sniffing around to see if he can get a gig.

As Paul pointed out back in December, Biden has repeatedly used cabinet positions as consolation prizes, shuffling around people to whom he owes political favors rather than picking people that, you know, would actually be good at the job. This is just how it works! But as Tanden found out, likely to her extremely funny dismay, that this entire cushy system requires at least a modicum of discretion from most of the parties involved. You can do amoral things, betray any principle known to man, and refuse to do even the bare minimum of political introspection, as long as you keep things just together enough to not become an embarrassment to the people above you. Like farts, you just have to have enough sense to lay your petards in private, or everyone will be able to see you get hoist.