By Paul Waldman, originally published in Washington Post.
In the past few months, Democrats appear to have learned a valuable lesson: While they can’t stop Republicans from ginning up fake controversies around President Biden’s nominees to fill out the administration, Democrats can treat those efforts with the contempt they deserve. And in so doing, they can, in the end, win.
This was driven home by something interesting that happened Thursday in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (no, really): A cynical GOP effort to torpedo a qualified Biden administration nominee both succeeded and failed, uniting Republicans but not winning over any Democrats.
This nominee, Tracy Stone-Manning, will probably need a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Harris to be confirmed to lead the Bureau of Land Management. But it looks at the moment as though she’s likely to get it.
Again and again, we’ve seen this pattern. Biden nominates a mainstream Democrat with all the requisite qualifications and reputation. Republicans sift through the nominee’s past to find something to push culture-war buttons among their base. Every last Republican votes against the nominee. But since Democrats stick together too, the nomination succeeds.
Last month, for instance, Harris had to cast the tiebreaking vote to confirm Kiran Ahuja to lead the Office of Personnel Management. Why did every Republican vote against her? Because, as they railed, when she led a network of philanthropic organizations, Ibram X. Kendi, a professor who has written things conservatives don’t like about racism, spoke at a series run by the organization.
Harris also had to cast a tiebreaking vote to confirm Jennifer Abruzzo to be general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, though in her case, Republicans were unable to find any connections to critical race theory; the fact that she is too friendly to workers was apparently enough to win the opposition of every last Republican.
What was Stone-Manning’s sin? Thirty-two years ago, when she was a student, she retyped and mailed a letter to the U.S. Forest Service for an acquaintance, warning that trees in an area slated for logging had been spiked by radical environmental activists.
Stone-Manning wasn’t involved in the tree spiking and was known even then for moderation among the activist community. (“She was always the one to say, ‘Hey, look, loggers have families, too,’” said a more radical activist.)
In the subsequent decades working in land management and environmental issues, eventually becoming the head of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Stone-Manning developed a reputation for seeking bipartisanship and compromise between industry and environmentalists. But that didn’t stop Republicans from literally calling her an eco-terrorist, or in the words of one GOP party committee, “a known eco-terrorist.”
The good news is that while all the Republicans on the committee voted against her nomination, all the Democrats — including Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) — voted for her. Which suggests that the same thing will happen when her nomination is voted on in the full Senate.
Something similar is happening to an even less high-profile nomination, that of Dilawar Syed, who runs a company making AI for health care in California and worked on small business issues in the Obama administration, to be deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration.
Syed is not some kind of lefty activist; his nomination was endorsed by business groups. But Republicans were so determined to derail his nomination that last week they boycotted a meeting of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship to deny a quorum and prevent a vote.
Their justification? Syed used to serve on the board of a Muslim American group, Emgage Action, that has been critical of Israeli government policy. Republicans are using that to insinuate that he’s somehow complicit in antisemitism, a charge ricocheting across far-right and Islamophobic websites.
That smear is so repugnant that a bevy of Jewish groups have rallied to Syed’s defense and condemned the attacks against him. They include the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, among others.
Don’t be surprised if we see the same outcome on his nomination as on Stone-Manning’s: All Republicans on the committee and in the Senate will vote against him, and the vice president will have to break the 50-50 tie.
Why do Republicans go through these exercises? One thing that seems clear is that trying to stop a nominee is the end in itself. It isn’t as though, if they managed to kill Syed’s nomination, the next person Biden picked to be deputy administrator of the SBA would institute more conservative policies.
It’s all for show — and even if almost none of their constituents notice, just making life difficult for the Biden administration, and leaving agencies without confirmed leadership so they run a little less efficiently, is better than nothing.
But so far, Democrats are treating these kinds of bogus attacks with no more consideration than they deserve. Let’s hope it stays that way.