by Neil H. Buchanan
The political wheel of fortune has again put Democrats in a position where they have had to decide whether to stand by a few of their compatriots who are difficult to defend, or instead to jettison excess baggage and move on. After weeks of backing his nomination of Neera Tanden to be his budget director, President Biden ultimately decided that she was not worth the fight. Meanwhile, whether New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will survive his emerging scandals is currently impossible to predict.
Every political scandal is different, of course, yet there is a sameness to the genre. Even so, there continues to be an enormous difference between the way that Democrats handle their embarrassing colleagues and the way that Republicans bulldoze through their much worse situations. Are there any lessons here?
To be sure, despite their toxic bellicosity, even Trump-era Republicans have not stood by every one of their politically problematic scandal-tainted officeholders and nominees. Various corrupt members of Congress and others have disappeared, and Republicans were surely not sorry to see them go. And not every one of Donald Trump's nominees survived scrutiny, including two misbegotten picks for the Federal Reserve Board (Stephen Moore and the now-deceased Herman Cain), who were doomed by quiet opposition from some Republicans.
In situations where Republicans can bail out quietly -- that is, when it does not become an "own the libs" moment or some other fierce culture war battle -- they tend to do the same thing that Democrats do and that even non-politicians do all the time: hope that an immediately embarrassing situation will simply go away. It is exhausting to try to defend the indefensible, or even to explain that something that looks bad might not be so bad, so we all have an interest in wishing for a quiet resolution.
Republicans do, however, have a track record of going to the mattresses much more frequently than the Democrats do -- and they do so on behalf of people who are much more difficult to defend. Betsy DeVos was confirmed as a cabinet secretary, as was Jeff Sessions (who had, years before, been denied a federal judgeship due to his racist views). Nutcase after nutcase joined the federal bench. Trump eventually did not even bother to go through the confirmation process on non-judicial appointees, opting instead to leave positions empty or to abuse the "acting" designation.
To step back a bit, it is hardly news that politics requires a lot of holding one's tongue (and nose). We do not agree with anyone about everything, certainly not the people to whom we give our votes. And if we do not agree with them all the time, then surely we will not agree with the people whom they nominate to positions in government. The politicians themselves choose their nominees by weighing pros and cons, and we do the same.
From the position of those who serve, the same underlying nonzero level of discomfort is a part of political life. I recall, during Bill Clinton's presidency, a conversation with an academic economist who had taken a Deputy Assistant Secretary position at Treasury (or some such place), and he told me that he often found himself swallowing hard to defend the president.
That is understandable, but this guys' particular example was both touching and revealing. Was he uncomfortable with Clinton's scandals, or maybe with Clintonian triangulation? No, this young economist had recently been struggling with the idea that one of Clinton's economic policies was not well targeted, providing incentives to people who would have acted even in the absence of incentives. In econ-geek-speak, Clinton had committed the unpardonable sin of offering "infra-marginal benefits." The horror.
Except that the sin was not, in fact, unpardonable. No resignation letter was sent, and for good reason. The currently popular version of this question is: Is that the hill you want to die on? And in almost every situation, the answer is sensibly going to be: Of course not.
The issue, then, is not whether people in politics ever defend something that they would prefer not to defend. It is also most certainly not whether being a partisan will cause people to make still more accommodations in troubling situations. The question is when enough is enough.
When it comes to Tanden, her situation made it far too easy for Democrats to fall in line. Not only were Republicans attacking her for being a partisan Democrat (which she clearly is), but these defenders of Trump were hypocritically attacking her for mean tweets. How could Democrats, including President Biden, not be up in arms about that? It was also galling that, unlike Cain or DeVos or so many others in the Trump years (Ben Carson, anyone?), Tanden possesses clear expertise and commitment to the substantive matters that would have been the essence of her job description. Finally, the stench of sexism and racism that hung in the air all but required Democrats to come to her defense.
Even so, I welcomed her withdrawal, and I am happy to consider her nomination the equivalent of sacrificing a pawn (or at most a bishop) to gain an advantage. She now stands for the proposition that Republicans "got something" from Biden, and he can now say that enough is enough -- especially because he only acted after people like Susan Collins and Mitt Romney burned political capital to sink her nomination.
Moreover, this is a situation in which the intra-party fights in which Tanden specialized truly mattered. Although Senator Bernie Sanders agreed to support her nomination, Tanden has a long history of being absolutely awful to the progressive wing of the party. And it is not just mean tweets. A New York Times piece about Tanden two years ago, for example, described a confrontation in 2008, when Tanden (then an aide to Hillary Clinton's failing presidential campaign) became infuriated by a question from a progressive journalist, Faiz Shakir.
The Times story described the incident: "Ms. Tanden responded by circling back to Mr. Shakir after the interview and, according to a person in the room, punching him in the chest." Not bad enough? The article then added: "'I didn’t slug him, I pushed him,' a still angry Ms. Tanden corrected in a recent interview." (Note that "recent" there refers to early 2019, while the incident happened in 2008.)
I forwarded that article a few months ago to a progressive friend, adding the comment: "I knew these types would populate a Biden administration, but yeesh. She’s just awful." The friend responded sarcastically: "Oh good. She physically assaults people."
For present purposes, the subject line of my email captures the dynamic: "This is whom we’re supposed to defend?" I should add that the article in The Times also described substantive issues on which Tanden was terrible (including sucking up to Benjamin Netanyahu, apparently in an effort to win a big donation from some billionaire for Tanden's think tank).
There are times, then, when it is not difficult to watch someone go down, even if they are nominally on my side. Without question, that is the way I feel about Cuomo. It is not only that he comes from the Rudy Giuliani/Chris Christie school of bullying, although that ought to be disqualifying on its own. Cuomo has a terrible record on corruption, tax progressivity, and especially attacking school teachers.
Is it complicated? Sure. Cuomo's high points include support for an important post-Sandy Hook gun control law in New York State, as well as taking an early lead on marriage equality. Even so, when we learned that Cuomo had faked COVID-related death statistics, quickly followed by a separate scandal in which three women have credibly accused him of sexual harassment (or worse), my response has been: "He's expendable."
And that requires some clarification. Some Democrats have responded to the new Cuomo allegations by saying that it is important not to react too quickly, lest we end up doing to Cuomo what we did to Al Franken. But that gets it exactly backward, because of course what Cuomo has done (across all of his scandals, separately or together) is obviously worse. As I wrote when Franken was under fire, Democrats needed to prove that they held themselves to higher standards, which applies much more forcefully to Cuomo.
Importantly, however, I conceded that this was a relatively easy call, because we knew that Franken would be replaced by a Democrat. This is what I mean by "expendable." New York is not going to replace Cuomo, immediately or in the next election, with a Greg Abbott (R-Covidland) or Lindsay Graham (R-Cravenville). In this sense, bailing on people like Cuomo and Franken is almost too easy. There are a lot of things that I do not like about, for example, Beto O'Rourke, but obviously he is infinitely better than Ted Cruz, and I wish O'Rourke had won their Senate race in 2018.
Still, too many Democrats -- hell, even many women who self-identified as feminists -- defended Bill Clinton in the late 1990's. Again, he would have been replaced by someone arguably better (certainly no worse), but what he did was indefensible. On policy, Tanden is merely a clone of Clinton, and I have long criticized him for selling out his party, which again means that I had no reservoir of affection for the guy by the time he was under fire.
The instinct to circle the wagons, however, has been even more common among Republicans, not just recently but even going back as far as the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court. Why did George H.W. Bush not simply pull his nominee -- who received the ABA's lowest rating, even before the Anita Hill story emerged? Why did Trump not pull Brett Kavanaugh's nomination? In both cases, the president would have simply slotted in an ideological clone. (Amy Coney Barrett was already on the short list from which Kavanaugh was chosen.)
In the end, it is understandable that people do not run screaming for the exits every time some bad news emerges about their political allies. Even so, the asymmetry of the two parties is notable. I cannot imagine Democrats defending a liberal version of a Thomas, Kavanaugh, DeVos, or any of the others. I can easily picture Republicans defending to the death conservative versions of Tanden, Cuomo, or Clinton -- or people who are guilty of much, much worse. Indeed, we have two recent Senate impeachment acquittals to prove it.