The average citizen has an unprecedented level of access to the inner thoughts of world politicians. Rather than getting soundbites through press secretaries and speech writers, global leaders now use social media to let the public know exactly what is on the minds of those in the highest offices. Few have used this forum to anywhere near the extent of former President Donald Trump. While in office, Trump used his personal Twitter account for everything from announcing policy decisions to insulting rivals. His tweets came to an end after he was banned due to his role in inciting the deadly attack on the Capitol on January 6th. Following this event, social media has come under increased scrutiny, with continuing cries of unconstitutional censorship coming from one side, while their political opposites question Twitter’s tolerance of incendiary rhetoric from important sources. Social media has taken center stage in political discourse. The impeachment hearings regarding Trump’s role in the Capitol attack helped launch the discussion to center stage, but President Biden’s Office of Management and Budget nominee, Neera Tanden, would further fuel the flames of the debate.
A dark cloud formed around Tanden almost immediately after being nominated. As Daily Beast reported in November, over 1,000 tweets from the prospective cabinet member vanished from her timeline around the time of her nomination. While the vast majority of these controversial tweets were aimed at Republicans, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was not immune from Tanden’s ire. Tanden has continually gone after Bernie Sanders and his related policies, both on her own personal Twitter and through comments from her time leading the Center for American Progress (CAP). A New York Times article published in 2019 detailed some of the tensions. As the CAP leader, she hosted controversial figures such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and took funding from much maligned sources such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, BlackRock, and Comcast. Criticism of these activities coming from the left has been consistently met with counter attacks and further hits, aimed especially at Sanders. Following an article and matching video criticizing the Vermont Senator put out by ThinkProgress (a now defunct editorial wing of CAP), Sanders sent a letter defending himself and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker from the organization’s comments. At one point in the letter, Sanders noted that Tanden “calls for unity while simultaneously maligning my staff and supporters and belittling progressive ideas.” Tanden would respond saying that the ThinkProgress video was “overly harsh.” Interactions like this have led to ongoing hostility between Tanden and supporters of Sanders, hostility that would lead a significant portion of the Vermont Senator’s base to urge him to vote no on Tanden’s confirmation.
Though many of Senator Sanders’ questions for the former CAP head revolved less around her comments and more around questionable activity at the center under her leadership, the same couldn’t be said for his Republican counterparts. Senators from the conservative party expressed deep concern over the rhetoric used by the nominee. As John Kennedy from Louisiana expressed at the Senate proceedings about Tanden, “You called Senator Sanders everything but an ignorant slut.” This was joined by South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham lamenting the lack of unity displayed in nominating such a divisive figure. Ultimately, the questioning was enough to sway Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia away from Tanden, putting her once assumed sure confirmation in danger. Manchin would draw criticism for his statement in opposition to Tanden, as he voted for Trump appointee Ric Grenell instead, who had a checkered Twitter record in his own right. With Manchin committing to a “no” vote, non-committal from Sanders, and little headway being made with swaying Republicans, the White House announced that Tanden’s nomination had been withdrawn on March 2nd. It’s yet to be seen if Tanden will land in a significant role outside of confirmation, but there seems to be no way forward that requires any form of bipartisan cooperation.
Tanden’s failure to pass through the Senate raises a significant question: Does her antagonizing past establish a new political norm for inflammatory social media, or did it provide an excuse for partisan denial? The political triumphs of Donald Trump, Madison Cawthorn, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and several others seem to signal that the online sphere shouldn’t affect how politicians are accepted or viewed. And yet, Tanden’s denial by the very same people who see no problem with the social media approach of those in their own party does force a moment of reconciliation. It seems almost hypocritical how the same party that derided the Twitter exploits of the last president would seek to nominate someone like Tanden—who oftentimes used the platform in a similarly provocative manner—in the first place. Though Tanden was apologetic during her hearing, it simply wasn’t enough to gain the key votes needed to carry her.
The next several years will be important for solidifying norms around political figures’ use of social media. Both parties must hold each other to the standards they’ve set. Following the rejection of Neera Tanden, Democrats need to use her as an example of Republicans taking a firm stance on controversial rhetoric. Conversely, Republicans have the opportunity to point out the hypocrisy of deriding the use of Twitter by politicians like Trump yet nominating a cabinet member who utilized similar attacks. Neera Tanden has the potential to be one of the most important political figures of the next several years, regardless of her failed confirmation. The precedent has been set—now it’s time to see if it will last.