Note | This post has been revised and updated. See below for details.
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On Twitter last night, lefty blogger Matt Bruenig got into a thing with Joan Walsh of The Nation, accusing her of intentionally misrepresenting the demographics of Bernie Sanders’ voter support. In the course of that attack (on the substance of which I mostly agree with Bruenig), he referred to her as both “geriatric” and ageist, and to her expressed views as “disgusting” and “pathetic.”
While Bruenig was working himself into that lather, Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress @-ed Walsh in sympathy, at which point Bruenig turned his sights on her. Calling her “Scumbag Neera,” he said that Tanden had “worked to starve my mother of cash assistance,” that she “uses welfare when she needs it then takes away from others when they need it,” and that she “tried to starve me and my mother because she wanted to be in Democratic politics.” When challenged on this, he said he was referring to Tanden’s welfare reform advocacy in the 1990s.
Tanden said on Twitter last night that she’d never done welfare policy work, to which Bruenig replied that he was talking about her public statements in support of it. That’s a real stretch, since he’d previously claimed she’d “worked to starve [his] mother,” and that she’d “take[n welfare] away from others” — those are allegations that she had been involved in welfare reform directly, not just cheering from the sidelines.
And this secondary claim—that Tanden had spoken publicly in favor of Clinton-era welfare reform—appears to be without basis. The one bit of evidence Bruenig has offered for it is a quote from a podcast in which Tanden told Ezra Klein that “welfare reform is really about ensuring every child has opportunity.” But here’s the context for that quote—Tanden had just finished (at 7:26) telling Klein how important public assistance had been to her and her mother when she was growing up, and that led to this exchange:
Klein: Do you think the welfare system as it exists now in its post-reform era would have played the same role for your family?
Tanden: Well, you know, my mother was on welfare three years. My own view of welfare is that welfare reform is really about ensuring that every child has opportunity. It’s not really about the parents. So I worry about a system that puts kids in worse positions because of the decisions that their parents make. I mean, there are a lot of people who have parents who are not fully functional, and we have a system that decides to in some ways disadvantage kids because of the decisions their parents make, and I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
It strikes me as absolutely clear that Tanden is here using the term “welfare reform” to refer to the principles that should guide welfare policy, not in reference to welfare as it exists, and that the rest of her remarks are an explicit criticism of the ways in which welfare policy has changed since she was a child. Welfare, she says, should be a mechanism for helping kids, not punishing parents for bad choices, and to “disadvantage kids because of the decisions their parents make … doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
One can criticise elements of Tanden’s argument here. But to suggest that these comments represent support for “starv[ing]” mothers on welfare, for “tak[ing] away” public support from women in need? That’s just false. It’s imputing a meaning to her words that’s the direct opposite of what they say. (If Bruenig has other evidence to support his claims, he should present it. I’ve gone looking on his timeline and on Google and this is all I’ve found.)
This isn’t the first time that Matt Bruenig has been criticized for his attacks on prominent people, and when such criticism has come in the past he’s often framed it — and rejected it — as a mealy-mouthed, hypocritical call for “civility.” But civility is not what’s at stake here. We can debate when snark turns into abuse and when vitriol becomes harassment (and whether Bruenig tends to aim his flamethrower disproportionately at women). But we don’t have to reach any of those questions here, because Bruenig has presented no evidence to support his claims.
To call someone “geriatric” in the same breath in which you accuse them of ageism is obtuse and unhelpful. But to bring accusations against someone on the basis of a statement that explicitly repudiates the position you accuse them of holding?
That’s just wrong. And it’s fundamentally incompatible with either serious political debate or good-faith movement building.
Update | Demos has announced that Bruenig will no longer be blogging for them, saying that “Matt has been at the center of controversies surrounding online harassment of people with whom he disagrees” — controversies that Demos was largely unaware of until today. It appears that they asked him to tone down his rhetoric on Twitter, he declined, and they’ve let him go.
August Update | Evidence has recently emerged that seems to give some support to the contention that Tanden was involved in welfare reform work in some capacity subsequent to the law’s passage in 1996. She was cc’ed on some materials on the subject in 1998, and welfare reform architect Bruce Reed was recently recorded saying that “she was obviously involved in the implementation.” (The question he was recorded responding to is ambiguous, but Zaid Jilani, who asked it, says he was asking about welfare reform specifically. Tanden subsequently posted what she said was an email from Reed saying that she didn’t start at the White House until after the welfare reform law was passed and that “she didn’t work on it when she got there,” however, and it doesn’t look like Reed has chosen to clarify things further. Make of all that what you will.)
None of this goes to the question of the interpretation of the Ezra Klein interview, of course, and it’s not more than suggestive on the question of what Tanden actually did at the White House. But ambiguous evidence is more evidence than no evidence, which is what was available when I wrote this post.
In my original post, I wrote that “all the evidence indicates that Bruenig’s attacks on Tanden are, again, simply false.” I still hold that view regarding Bruenig’s gloss on the Klein interview. However, it’s reasonable to read the available evidence as suggesting that she may have been involved in some way—though we have no information as to how—in welfare reform work, so I’ve rephrased that passage and I retract that claim.
September Update | It’s now my understanding that Bruenig regards the fact that Tanden held a senior domestic policy position in the Clinton White House as evidence, in and of itself, that Tanden was involved in welfare reform work, and thus is guilty of trying “to starve [him] and [his] mother.” Though I don’t find this position particularly persuasive, I’m willing to accept that Bruenig holds it sincerely.
In the original version of this post I accused Bruenig of lying. I shouldn’t have. I think he made claims that are false, and others that he was unable to adequately support, but I don’t know that he made those claims knowing them to be false. And just as Bruenig shouldn’t have made claims about Tanden without robust evidence, I shouldn’t have made claims about him without such evidence.