The Great Matt Bruenig-Neera Tanden Kerfuffle Sort of Explained


I spent the afternoon catching up on the latest in the world of liberal scuffles. Here’s the background: Lefty gadfly Matt Bruenig got into a Twitter fight with Joan Walsh yesterday morning over the topic of young people supporting Bernie Sanders. It culminated with this from Bruenig: “I have a daughter too. Your pathetic ageism against young people (remember taunting them as “barely shaven”) is sickening to me.” About then, CAP president Neera Tanden weighed in with a light comment defending Walsh, which prompted this follow-up from Bruenig:

Tanden is—and has been for a long time—a Hillary staffer and ally, so it’s not unreasonable to suspect that she might have supported welfare reform in the 90s. But Tanden denies ever having supported it, which is believable on its face since (a) her family used welfare when she was growing up, and (b) she was in law school at the time welfare reform was being debated.1

In any case, Bruenig’s tweets were nasty, apparently unfounded, and a bit two-faced (charging Walsh with “ageism” followed by insulting Tanden as “geriatric”). So what happened next? I’ll get to that, but perhaps some of you don’t know who Neera Tanden is. You should. To the best of my memory, I’ve never interacted with her and don’t really know anything about her, but a bit of googling turned up this:

  • Her birthday is a deeply held secret. However, she was born in 1970 and says she’s 45 now, so it must be sometime after May 19.
  • Her brother attended USC and she attended UCLA. Woot! I approve already. We need less Ivy League and more West Coast in high places.
  • She uses the word “actually” a lot. Maybe she picked this up at UCLA.
  • She is the president of CAP, the Center for American Progress. CAP is a high-powered progressive think tank that most people think of as either a very influential mainstream liberal think tank or, if you want to be a little more insidery, as the Clinton family’s personal think tank.2 Being president of CAP is, as Joe Biden might say, a Big Effin Deal. Tanden is the kind of person who gets mentioned frequently as a possible chief-of-staff in a Hillary Clinton White House.
  • Here’s the Washington Post shortly after she took over CAP: “At 5 feet 2 inches tall, with an infectious laugh and impatience for ineptitude, Tanden brims with a moxie that can shift to sarcasm. Critics and allies alike describe her as an effective molder and messenger of intricate policy, as well as an expert practitioner of in-house politics. Friends say she is remarkably well-rounded: a model wife and mother, ideal company for a glass of wine, a perfect partner for spontaneous office dancing.” Yikes!

OK, so what happened next? Bruenig works for Demos, a lefty think tank (yeah, they’re everywhere), which got wind of his tweets and immediately apologized: “Sincerest apologies for @MattBruenig’s judgment and demeanor. It’s unacceptable and we’re on it. While @MattBruenig blogs with Demos, we do not condone personal attacks. We are dealing with this internally. Thank you for understanding. We value the important work you’ve done and continue to do. @neeratanden @joanwalsh” This afternoon Demos fired him:

Today, we are taking a harder look at how our staff, fellows and independent contractors engage on social media—and unfortunately, we are finding that we have not met our own standards of vigilance to ensure that nobody associated with Demos is crossing an important line. After our tweet apologizing for Matt’s personal attacks including the term “scumbag,” we received emails from multiple individuals who made it clear that we were not aware of the extent to which Matt has been at the center of controversies surrounding online harassment of people with whom he disagrees.

It was evidence of a pattern of behavior that is far out of line with our code of conduct. After multiple conversations, Matt Bruenig and Demos have agreed to disagree on the value of the attack mode on Twitter. We part ways on the effectiveness of these kinds of personalized, online fights and so we are parting ways as colleagues today. And just as we did with Matt three years ago when he first joined our blog, Demos will continue to find and amplify the voices of lesser-known progressive policy commentators to make for a more inclusive public sphere.

As their statement goes on to say, there’s an overlay of Bernie vs. Hillary in all this, and this prompted a flurry of Twitter condemnations of Demos. Glenn Greenwald was fairly typical:

So which was it? Was Bruenig fired for offending the great and good, or was he fired for being a jerk? It’s hard to say, isn’t it? Demos says it got a pile of emails that suggested a longtime pattern of “online harassment.” But the rest of us haven’t seen those emails, so who knows? They also say they had “multiple conversations” with Bruenig, and apparently he declined to just apologize and move on. It also sounds like he declined to rein in his behavior.

If you assume that Demos is telling this straight, it’s hard to see how they could hold onto him. This is the kind of thing that I’d normally call a non-firing offense, but only if the offender agrees there’s a problem and promises to rein it in. The risk of having an employee like this go completely ballistic at some point and write something either libelous or just plain repellent3 is too great. All of these tweets may have been on Bruenig’s private account, but he’s still very publicly associated with Demos—which is explicitly in the influence biz and has to be careful about making lots of random enemies just because one of its employees has a bit of a temper problem.

The whole thing is a damn shame. I hope Bruenig lands on his feet somewhere, but I’ll bet that any future employer will ask for pretty much the same promise about tone and harassment that Demos did. It’s a little hard to imagine any outfit in the think tank trade not caring about this. In the end, I suspect Matt Yglesias has the final word:

1It’s times like this I wish I still had access to Nexis so I could check this out, but I don’t.

UPDATE: Nexis problem solved. I searched “Neera Tanden” for the entire decade of the 90s. The first hit is from 1992 in the Los Angeles Times: “UCLA student Neera Tanden was awarded the first Sam Law Leadership Award by the Asian Pacific Alumni of UCLA at a Nov. 17 reception held at Royce Hall on the campus. Tanden, a senior planning to attend law school, was selected for her leadership experience, community and university service.”

The other 11 hits were all the same: she was listed as a contact in press releases for the Clinton/Gore campaign in 1996. I did a more cursory search from 2000 through the present, and found mostly mentions of health care reform. The closest thing I could find about welfare was from a 2014 interview where Tanden criticized Republican budget cuts: “Food stamps have been cut. Proposals to cut nutrition aid would drop children from school lunch programs. Section 8 housing and welfare aren’t keeping up with the need. I’m concerned about how the attack on these programs is going to impact people in our country because I know that I wouldn’t be here today if they hadn’t been available to me.”

If Tanden ever so much as mentioned welfare reform, she sure didn’t do it publicly.

2Dammit, is there a synonym for think tank?

3More repellent, anyway. You know what I mean.