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What Neera Tanden Got Wrong

Why the liberal power broker's tweet about the pandemic was so infuriating.

On Friday, Neera Tanden, the president of liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, tweeted this:

https://twitter.com/neeratanden/status/1281667806472351745

Neera Tanden is bad (even though she got COVID-19, for which I sympathize) and getting mad at the things she says online is a common pastime, but this comment is still lingering with me days later. (Tanden is apparently also still hung up on it, since she tweeted on Monday morning that she merely meant that “better leadership saved lives.”)

The tweet is partially jaw-dropping because it’s just unbelievably, irrefutably wrong that blue states took some grand “action to stop the spread of the virus.” Set aside the fact that California, pretty much the bluest state in the country, is struggling to contain the virus right now. My own blue state of New York happens to be the primary reason that COVID-19 spread so virulently throughout America in the first place, as Jack Crosbie wrote about on Discourse Blog recently. If Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio had gotten their shit together, rather than throw this place to the wolves, things would be much, much better across the country. We also had 32,000 people die here. We were literally the epicenter of the pandemic in the entire world, thanks, in large part, to the failures of our blue state leaders. We went through absolute hell.

These are just facts. Now, it’s true that the governors of Florida and Texas and many other red states are making things really, really bad right now, and that New York has flattened its curve. But multiple things can be true at once. I’m not quite sure how someone like Neera Tanden looks at 32,000 people dead and a nationwide COVID spread and her first reaction is, “Well, coulda been worse.” This is true, I guess, in the same way that things are probably worse for you if you get stabbed 25 times instead of 15, or if two bombs are dropped on your house instead of one, but it’s kind of beside the point.

But I think the real reason the Tanden stuff is staying with me is because she is a very powerful figure in Democratic Party politics, and the lazy, unthinking tribalism embedded in her tweet is profoundly depressing and pretty widespread. At its worst, this sort of blue state smugness leads to liberals crowing at destitute people in Republican states because, hey, they got what was coming to them by voting red. Tanden isn’t doing that, but the world she is implicitly asking us to accept is one in which Democrats are only capable of good-faith errors and don’t deserve to be held accountable in the same way as Republicans. Republicans have the monopoly on cruelty; Democrats are just trying their best. Anyone who has lived through this pandemic should know that is nonsense.

Take just one issue: prisons. How is that robust blue state response going there? Let’s look at the states I mentioned previously: California and New York.

California’s prison system is notoriously overcrowded, but rather than release people en masse, the government let people out in dribs and drabs, ensuring that things would still be dangerous for inmates. Then it wound up actively lighting the match of this tinderbox by importing COVID-19 into the San Quentin prison. The virus has rocketed through San Quentin. Nine people have died. The stories out of San Quentin are awful. Only now is the state moving to be even slightly proactive about releasing people.

Things in New York have been equally grim. COVID testing in prisons has been woeful, at both the city and state levels. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has firmly refused to implement mass releases for months. Instead, he recently turned one upstate facility into a kind of COVID nursing home for elderly prisoners. Anyone who has seen Cuomo’s callous and catastrophic actions around nursing homes more broadly would blanch at this decision—and, inevitably, there has already been at least one confirmed COVID case at the prison. (I will admit to a personal interest here: In recent weeks, I watched the state successfully go to court to block even the temporary release of Jalil Muntaqim, a former Black Panther and longtime family friend who has been incarcerated for nearly 50 years and who was hospitalized for COVID-19.)

That’s just one area of pain, washed away by the kind of blue state boosterism Neera Tanden is trying to push. These were not things that happened merely because of some understandable blunders by good blue state governors. Democratic politicians made affirmative choices, and those choices harmed people. This is not complicated: If we are going to ever get anywhere in this country, people have to start admitting that Democrats can be just as responsible for the ills plaguing us as anybody else.

Screenshot: MSNBC