With Tanden Choice, Democrats Stick it to Sanders Voters
The appointment of a longtime anti-Sanders troll to the Biden government is an impressively petty end zone dance by Democrats celebrating the crushing of their left flank
The Democratic Party is not known for its sense of humor, but news that Joe Biden will appoint longtime Center for American Progress chief Neera Tanden to his government qualifies as a rare, well-earned laugh line.
Tanden is famous for two things: having a puddle of DNC talking points in place of a cerebrum, and despising Bernie Sanders. She was #Resistance’s most visible anti-Sanders foil, spending awe-inspiring amounts of time on Twitter bludgeoning Sanders and his supporters as a deviant mob of Russian tools and covert “horseshoe theory” Trump-lovers. She has, to put it gently, an ardent social media following. Every prominent media figure with even a vague connection to Sanders learned in recent years to expect mud-drenched pushback from waves of “Neera trolls” after any public comment crossing DNC narratives. No name in blue politics is more associated with seething opposition to Sanders than Tanden.
Biden is making this person Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Sanders is the ranking member (and, perhaps, future chair) of the Senate Budget Committee. Every time Bernie even thinks about doing Committee business, he’ll be looking up at Neera Tanden. For a party whose normal idea of humor is ten thousand consecutive jokes about Trump being gay with Putin, that’s quite a creative “fuck you.”
As friend and former Sanders aide David Sirota put it:
The Democrats still have to reckon with Trumpism in both the short and long term, but the Sanders movement on their other flank has at least temporarily been routed as a serious oppositional force. The Democrats know this, which is part of the joke of the Tanden appointment. While the party’s labors to oppose Trump have been incoherent at best, the campaign to kneecap Sanders has been, let’s admit it, brilliant.
The Blue Apparat has always despised Bernie and his various precursor movements far more than it hated Republicans, and for good reason. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Clintonite hacks in cushy Washington sinecures who would have retained their spots in the event of a loss to Trump. A Sanders win would have put them all out of the politics business for a while. It was unsurprising to see the party mainstream marshaling all of what passes for its brainpower to devise a long game to crate-train Sanders, who in less than a year went from oppositional favorite to seize the Democratic nomination to obedient afterthought.
In hindsight, the key blow against the Sanders movement was delivered way back on February 13th, 2016. Sanders at the time was making a primary race expected to be a blowout competitive, mostly via simple juxtaposition of Wall Street misbehavior and Hillary Clinton’s amazing aptitude for wolfing down corporate speaking fees. In the lead-up to the Iowa caucus, Sanders ran an ad blasting Goldman, Sachs for its role in trading “toxic” mortgage securities, and asked: how does Wall Street get away with it? Answer: “millions in contributions and speaking fees”:
The Clinton campaign for weeks struggled to come up with an answer for why it was okay for her Super PAC, the ironically-named Priorities USA, to take the bulk of its money from Wall Street, or why Clinton and her husband in fifteen years had racked up an incredible $153 million in speaking fees, at an average of $210,795 per speech, including $600,000 from Goldman. The first effort at a defense was to blast Sanders for using what she called an “artful smear,” claiming he couldn’t come up with a specific example of how all that special interest money had affected her.
“If you’ve got something to say, say it directly,” she said in a debate, adding that she objected to the idea that "anyone who's ever taken donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought."
This argument worked for Sanders, though, as Clinton was essentially repeating that she was taking gobs of special interest money. She moved off the “I strenuously object on behalf of those who’ve collected massive speaking fees” defense soon enough and shifted to another, arguing on February 8th, 2016 that Sanders, too, had taken some Wall Street money — through the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee! For obvious reasons, this argument, that Sanders had been corrupted “indirectly” through her own party’s campaign apparatus, fell flat as well.
The true Eureka! moment came in a speech in Henderson, Nevada in that second week of February. Clinton told supporters that, of course — hand on heart — she’d be more than happy to break up the banks, “if they deserve it.” At the same time, she wondered what that would really accomplish:
Would breaking up banks end racism, she asked the crowd? No! came the answer. Sexism? No! Discrimination against the LGBT community? No! Would punishing banks make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight? Or fix problems with voting rights for people of color, the elderly, the young? No, no, no, and NO!
None of this made sense, of course. Raising the minimum wage, curtailing carbon emissions, lowering student debt, curing cancer, securing world peace, or any of a thousand other worthwhile things wouldn’t have solved the parade of meta-problems Clinton listed. There was no logical reason to depict the two sets of things — economic and racial justice aims — as contradictory goals. But Clinton’s “Not everything is an economic theory!” speech stuck, with the media most of all. From that point forward, everything Sanders said about inequality was spun by party messengers as half of a zero-sum equation that somehow punished disadvantaged groups on the other end.
The brilliant innovation was adopting the language of intersectionality to beat back the party’s populist flank. In March of 2016, in the middle of a debate with Sanders in Flint, Michigan, the Clinton campaign posted a jargon-crammed chart depicting the “intersectional challenges” that “we” face, noting that “real plans” were needed. This was classic Clintonian politics, mastering the lexicon of social progressivism to mask a lunge rightward on economic questions:
The 2016 rip of Sanders as a “pie in the sky” candidate who didn’t offer “real” solutions to “intersectional” problems was an echo of 2008, when Bill Clinton denounced Barack Obama as a “fairy tale” candidate. In that year, and really in all previous cycles, the Clinton strategy had been to push back against progressive challenges by depicting themselves as realists who eschewed “purity” to “get things done.” In 2016, though, the DNC priesthood ripped off the language of “purist” activists to fend off Sanders, an unvarnished underdog character straight out of Capra the Party would now recast as the reactionary representative of the patriarchy.
As Democratic speechwriter Jon Favreau put it in one of the Wikileaks emails:
This idea that class is the only divide and economic issues are all that matter is a very white male centric view of the world (a Bernie Bro view, if you will). It also reminds me of the hilarious joke that Brian Buetler keeps making every time some asshole says something horribly racist about Obama or sexist about Hillary or prejudice about immigrants and Muslims - oh, let's not blame them, they're just economically anxious.
In that same letter culled from the Podesta Wiki dump, Favreau said aloud the taboo truth that “economic anxiety” was, of course, real. However, he said Trump’s emergence made “divisiveness” a more important issue than “inequality”:
Years later, an anonymous Clinton aide would spell all of this out even more, telling Vox that Bernie’s status as a “cis white man” gave him “privilege” that disqualified him from talking about political strategy choices in the Trump era.
The irony was the Clinton brand was built on the opposite strategy. Bill Clinton-Dick Morris politics revolved around the relentless working of wedge issue math, with the candidate constantly veering right and attacking left to steal away Republican advantages. Bill Clinton passed the infamous 1994 crime bill (which formalized the equally infamous “100-1” sentencing disparity for crack versus cocaine users), introduced the “Defense of Marriage Act” to undercut gay marriage, passed NAFTA, and implemented the welfare reform law long sought by the likes of Ronald Reagan, among countless other examples of regressive policy choices designed to steal Republican thunder.
All of this, the New Yorker wrote back in 1996, allowed Clinton to:
Deploy the wedge issues of economic populism against the Republicans while blunting the Republicans' ability to use the wedge issues of social populism against him… On issues of criminal rights and liberties — what might be called Willie Horton issues — [Clinton] has… gone so far to the right that he has been willing to back measures of dubious constitutionality.
With Sanders, this script was flipped exactly backward. This time, Democrats used “wedge issues of social populism” to fight back against “economic populism.” The same political sect that leaked photos of Barack Obama in African garb, implied South Carolina wasn’t a meaningful primary state because Jesse Jackson had won there, and went out of its way to execute mentally impaired Ricky Ray Rector as a seeming campaign stunt, was now draping itself in racial sanctimony. Meanwhile, the rumpled Vermont socialist Sanders was cast — by Clintons — as the icon of white liberal racism! It would all be laughable, if it didn’t also work.
With the aid of enormous quantities of hype and bull artistry, opinionmakers heading into the 2019-2020 election cycle crafted a new vision of the intellectual “controversy” that divided Democrats, and described the difference between Sanders and the field of mainstream challengers like Biden. The crucial question, supposedly: was the road to solving America’s problems a matter of erasing class inequities? Or did a “class only” analysis insufficiently highlight the special disadvantages faced by communities of color and other disadvantaged groups?
A third possibility — that mainstream Democrats as a rule ignored both questions and primarily whored for corporate donors — was ignored. Democratic politics was presented as a binary proposition, where the two choices were an enlightened approach stressing racial justice, or a “class determinism” that was really just a fetish of rich white kids dabbling in leftist politics because they felt guilty about their inheritances. There was a trickle of this rhetoric in 2015-2016, but by 2019, feature after feature pondered the “stubborn economism” of the Sanders campaign, wondering aloud if Bernie had the goods to answer the all-important question, “Is it race or class?”
In truth the schism within the Party had nothing to do with any fictitious Sophie’s Choice between tackling racism or economic inequality, as if the two were mutually exclusive. The real issue was money. Sanders refused to take corporate donations. Clinton Democrats refused to “unilaterally disarm,” and did take them. This was the entire debate and it wasn’t complicated. Pundits however were able to muddy these waters pretty easily, in large part because they knew the intellectual weaknesses of left-leaning media audiences, as well as Sanders himself.
This ingenious campaign against “Bernie Bros,” led in significant part by online trolls like Tanden, was a success for predictable reasons. Sanders on his touchiest day is not the most confrontational of personalities. He doesn’t enjoy the bloodsport of politics and preferred to try to win in 2016 and 2020 though what aides grumblingly described as the “rock concert.” Before massive adoring crowds, Bernie would recite a gospel about the evils of corporate influence, hoping that sheer righteous enthusiasm would carry the day. He rarely stressed about his opponents’ efforts to caricature him. When Bernie did get mad, like for instance at the coverage of the Washington Post, it often worked. But these episodes were rare, as he tended to reserve his ire for systemic villains, and rarely seemed motivated to answer personal insults.
As a result, Sanders never found a way to call bullshit on the “But will it end racism?” line. If anything, he was paralyzed by it. The difference between 2016 Bernie and 2020 Bernie is that the latter version seemed deeply troubled by charges that he was “out of touch” on issues like race, which, frankly, he was, at times. It was true that the aging Senator of a white agricultural state often tensed up over race questions or used outdated language, in episodes that allowed press wolves to depict him as a secret unreconstructed bigot (his use of the word “ghetto” in 2016 was an example). There were times when he seemed at a loss on racial issues in ways he was not on economic matters.
Of course, relatively speaking, Sanders had a terrific record on racial justice — he had marched with King when Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater girl and Joe Biden was chain-fighting Corn Pop, and had advocated for the working poor his whole life — but he agonized over the criticism in ways more shame-immune opponents did not. The DNC and its messengers were counting on Bernie’s decades of residence in the weeds of fringe-liberal politics, where winning obscure doctrinal arguments in interminable (if sparsely attended) meetings and fighting pitched battles over things like who is and is not a sellout can be more important activities than, say, winning anything. With the “Bernie Bro” narrative, the party went after Bernie’s rep as a real progressive, and he was constitutionally incapable of ignoring such a provocation.
It was the same with charges that he was a favorite of the Russians, another regular theme of Tanden. Rather than recognize from the start that the Russia issue was being used as a club against opposition voices across the spectrum, including the antiwar left, Sanders tiptoed around the question, often giving lip service to the most absurd Russiagate theories. He didn’t show a hint of anger until a fresh dump of “Secret Sources Say Putin Loves Bernie!” reports hit the news about ten minutes before the Nevada caucus.
Bernie at least saw through that one. “I’ll let you guess about one day before the Nevada caucuses,” he quipped last February. “The Washington Post? Good friends.”
Even in that case, though, Sanders couldn’t take the next step. Instead of taking aim at the conniving bund of reporters, DNC pols, and intelligence sources driving these McCarthy-style attacks, Sanders after the Nevada incident dutifully denounced the Foreign Menace. “I unequivocally condemn such interference,” he said, essentially conceding that Russia was helping his campaign.
Just like Jeremy Corbyn, who looked weak when he dignified both the red-baiting claims that Russia was helping him and the breathless accusations of anti-Semitism cooked up as a last-ditch effort to delegitimize his coalition, Sanders helped shovel dirt on his own movement by failing to strike back in anger at these multitudinous bogus propaganda campaigns. Now the Democrats have the White House back, and it’s already pretty clear that Sanders voters are going to be rewarded for this timidity with four years of the High Hat.
How bad is it? Appointments like Janet Yellen, John Kerry and, yes, even Tanden are being lauded as picks likely to be “welcomed by progressives.” The rest of Biden’s team feels like absolute continuity with the last three decades of Wall Street-friendly Democratic politics, with the appointment of Black Rock veteran Brian Deese to serve as chief economic adviser being just one example.
The difference between conventional Democrats and the Sanders movement is that Democrats never allowed themselves to view Sanders and his followers as anything but threats that needed squashing. They were never tempted, even for a moment, to take the idea of a Sanders presidency seriously. Sanders was loyal in the end to the party that made a mission of destroying him, and now gets Neera Tanden up the keister as the first installment in what is sure to be a long program of repayment for the sin of running without permission. Welcome to the eternal law of American politics, where no crime is punished more harshly than being a good loser.