Of all the nominees President-elect Joe Biden has so far put forward, Neera Tanden is the one most likely to lose a confirmation battle.
She has harshly attacked some Republican senators whose votes she may now need to become the head of the Office of Management and Budget. After the Senate voted to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, she issued a press release accusing Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, of “offering a pathetically bad faith argument as cover for President Trump’s vicious attacks on survivors of sexual assault.”
Senator Robert Portman, a Republican from Ohio, says her tweets have shown too much partisanship and not enough judgment. Tanden has deleted many of her more peppery tweets during the last month.
The counterargument from Tanden’s supporters is obvious: You Republicans are upset about tweets now? President Donald Trump has been far more incendiary, offensive and downright nutty in his Twitter feed, and Republican officeholders have gotten used to averting their eyes from it.
Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin has gone so far as to say that since Portman can’t really be upset about Tanden’s comportment, he must really be motivated by the desire “to defeat a woman of color.” It seems more plausible to assume that Republicans, like most people, don’t like it when they’re insulted.
The debate over Tanden has low stakes for Biden. If she makes it through, she won’t be the first, or even the fifth, OMB director to have spent time in the political trenches. If she doesn’t, Biden will surely get someone else who has roughly the same outlook to fill the position.
But it’s a preview of what is very likely to be a running theme in politics during the Biden administration. Republicans will object to something: They’ll claim the Democrats are violating norms, or lying, or acting unethically, or seizing too much power for the president. Democrats will respond that such complaints, coming from Republicans who supported Trump, are too hypocritical to take seriously.
That indignant, dismissive Democratic response will be natural, and it will have some truth to it. Progressive activists will say that it would be unfair and self-defeating for Democrats to hold Biden to a higher standard than Republicans demanded of Trump — and they’ll have a point, too. Tanden herself expressed that sentiment in one of her deleted tweets, saying that “when they go low, going high doesn’t (expletive) work” (demure the censorship in the original).
But Biden campaigned on restoring standards. Bringing dignity and decency back to the White House was his central promise. “Character is on the ballot” was his favorite line.
If Democrats’ go-to answer to the controversies of the Biden presidency is to argue that Trump was worse, they’ll be treating Trump as the standard for presidential comportment. They’ll be doing their part to make the changes he wrought in the presidency permanent. And they’ll be making all their denunciations of Trump seem a little hypocritical, too.
The Biden administration thus faces not one difficult choice but two. It must decide whether to stick with Tanden (who also has enemies on the left) or substitute another nominee who is less of a partisan warrior. It will also have to decide whether to use “but what about Trump?” as an all-purpose excuse when it gets criticized, including in the more important future controversies that are sure to arise. Again and again, the Democrats’ political interest in scoring points against the Republicans will conflict with their stated project of improving the tone of political life — and their interest in making good on their promise of doing just that.
It was a promise that sounded easier to deliver than it will be. As much as most Americans look forward to Trump’s departure from office, we’re about to find out that rebuilding norms is a lot harder than tearing them down.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.
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