What Do Democrats Do All Day?

On Neera Tanden's promotion

Neera Tanden got a new job this week. According to the Washington Post’s Michael Scherer, Tanden, the former head of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, is the new White House staff secretary. The job is obscure but important. As Scherer explains, the staff secretary has “control over the documents that make it to the president, whether they be briefing books or decision memos laying out the arguments on major decisions.” One of the nation’s premier posters will now decide which posts the president sees.

Tanden is, according to her mentor, John Podesta, “uniquely suited to the role because she is a lawyer, which is important, she is tough, and she will discipline important decision making inside the White House.” As far as how convincing that is, certainly no one can deny that Tanden has a Juris Doctor from Yale Law. Discipline, on the other hand, is something she has historically been more apt to apply to her underlings than herself.

That is surely, in some sense, one of her qualifications for the job. Tanden’s record consists largely of navigating liberal and Democratic institutions and policing the behavior and expression of more-left people within them. This, along with her related ability to flatter her masters, is seemingly why the Biden administration has invested so much time in finding her a prestigious White House job, even after her nomination to run the Office of Management and Budget—a somewhat odd choice to begin with—ran aground due to her posts. (That nomination saga was in many respects a preview of how the rest of Biden’s first year in office would go, as conservative Senate Democrats unexpectedly torpedoed a major administration goal even as Bernie Sanders and progressives were willing to play along.)

And, in fact, since withdrawing her OMB nomination, Tanden has been working in the White House, as a senior adviser. “Neera Tanden is back,” Politico warned us in late May. “Could she be more powerful?” Her brief, initially, was to somehow prepare for a Supreme Court decision gutting the Affordable Care Act. That didn’t happen—a win for Tanden!—so, since then, Scherer writes, she “has helped lead the external political effort to pass the Biden economic agenda.” And, uh, how has that been going? Has it been going well?

“Every morning this week at 8:45,” the Los Angeles Times reported in August, “a newly established ‘war room’ has convened at the White House,” with 20 staffers dedicated not to the then-unfolding Afghanistan withdrawal but to “keeping President Biden’s big infrastructure push on track.” Leading this war room was senior adviser Neera Tanden, who told the paper just how organized and focused her entire team was on getting Biden’s domestic agenda done.

“The No. 1 priority for our cabinet overall, from our perspective here, is to build support throughout the [August] recess process for the legislative agenda,” said Neera Tanden, a senior advisor to the president who has overseen the war room since July. Tasked with building support for a $1.2-trillion bipartisan infrastructure measure and the Democrats’ $3.5-trillion budget proposal, Tanden is dispatching cabinet members to key states, monitoring lawmakers’ town halls and arranging hundreds of local TV interviews with administration officials.

Again, I ask—how did all of that go? Did it…work?

That was August. It is now October. It is impossible for even a tuned-in person to keep track of how congressional negotiations on Biden’s budget are going, but last I saw, Senator Joe Manchin was telling everyone he’d be fine spending zero dollars on it, and for some reason other Democratic senators were treating this like it was proof they were all making great progress. Most agree nothing will get done for the foreseeable future, and, as usual, Congress has already gone home for the weekend. 

Given that every development since August has amounted to a stalling routine by Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema as they wait to see if they can still kill the reconciliation bill, you have to wonder if perhaps what Neera Tanden and her 20-person “war room” are up to every morning isn’t just meaningless busywork. They may not know that, because perhaps it’s all they actually know how to do. But at no point has it seemed like the White House has had any strategy at all for getting its agenda through the Senate besides…hoping? Assigning Neera Tanden a task that can only be achieved by winning over the senator who sank her previous nomination due in part to her insulting his daughter seems to me to demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of her skillset and reputation.

It may be that Tanden’s brief would’ve been impossible anyway even if she had been more suited to the job; it’s not like she made Chuck Schumer clear the field for Kyrsten Sinema to win a Democratic nomination for Senate. But there’s no evidence that anything she’s done over the last several months has had any appreciable effect on whether or not Joe Biden’s domestic policy agenda actually happens, and at some point all the pragmatists and realists in the party should own up to what keeps going wrong with their pragmatic and realistic tactics.

Plenty of cynics will tell you that the Democratic Party is best understood as a jobs program for mediocre loyalists, but it’s worth considering, for once, not the negative qualities of the people it elevates but the paucity of their actual successes. Rahm Emanuel, the administration’s nominee for ambassador to Japan, was mayor of Chicago for eight years, and while we all know he closed 50 schools and tried to cover up the police murder of a child, it seems equally significant that no one can point to any actual positive accomplishments. I’ve written before about the cult of “getting things done” Democrats, but it really is remarkable how little they actually do. “Competence” in Democratic politics is a pose and a personality trait unconnected to any record of achievement.

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What Is Joe Manchin Doing?

I had a lot of fun earlier this week talking with Jon Kimball and David Rees about last week’s letter on their podcast, Election Profit Makers. Of course, after I went public with my big prediction about Sinema, it was reported, by David Corn, that Manchin wants to go independent now apparently. I thought about writing a follow-up, but my only real thought on the subject is it’s probably… fine, as long as he still caucuses with the Democrats, which it still seems like he’d do. Manchin leaving the party would be great, actually, if he was just cynically announcing his independence as political cover for voting for the Democratic policy agenda. But he does seem pretty set on making everything much worse, so an independent Manchin really wouldn’t change much in the useless and broken U.S. Senate.