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How Neera Tanden Works

Emails released by WikiLeaks reveal the maneuverings of a liberal think-tank president and member of Hillary Clinton's inner circle.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

In 2012, when asked about the Center for American Progress’s role in that year’s election, Neera Tanden, the think tank’s president, told The Washington Post, “Our most fundamental goal is to provide positive ideas and to make those ideas part of a governing agenda.” To fulfill that mandate, she continued, think tanks have to “ensure their credibility over the long term—and people will take a think tank seriously if their ideas are serious.”

This is a conventional depiction of how think tanks work. They generate good ideas—based on grounded, well-researched policy—then go to bat for those ideas in the halls of the federal government and on Capitol Hill. CAP’s own website echoes this idyllic notion, calling itself an “independent nonpartisan policy institute dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans.”

However, it is widely known that the CAP is a Democratic operation, stuffed to the gills with staffers who have either worked in previous Democratic administrations or will go on to work in future ones. Furthermore, it currently identifies with one wing of the Democratic Party in particular—the Clinton wing—to the extent that it has commonly been referred to as Hillary Clinton’s government-in-waiting. Tanden openly acknowledges that she is an informal adviser to the Clinton campaign, and that she has given the campaign political advice in a private capacity. Tanden told The New Republic she sees this as “an entirely distinct role” from her position as the president of CAP. She has been named one of four co-chairs for the Clinton transition team and is expected to take on a senior role in any Clinton administration.

What is less widely understood is the form that advice can take, and how it influences the Democratic Party’s agenda. Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly strong bid for the Democratic nomination exposed divisions between an emboldened left wing of the party and the more centrist Clinton stalwarts. A few glimpses of Tanden the political operative broke through, mainly by way of her social media presence on Twitter. (Earlier this year, GQ named Tanden Clinton’s “secretary of defense” in honor of her frequent Twitter attacks on Clinton’s critics.)

None of this, however, provided the insight that has been gained from the WikiLeaks release of the hacked emails of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, who founded CAP in 2003. These emails, in which Tanden is a frequent figure, reveal an operator who, in spite of her professed deference to “serious ideas,” has actively blurred the lines between policy and politics, all to advance a single goal: electing Hillary Clinton. Even Tanden’s many, often amusing criticisms of Clinton, particularly for using a private email server, fall under this category. In pursuit of that goal, she has consistently prioritized politics over policy, and frozen out dissenters who might otherwise have ideas of value to contribute to the Democratic agenda.

Tanden’s career has largely been defined by her relationship with the Clintons, first as a policy adviser to Bill Clinton, then as Hillary Clinton’s policy director in the 2008 Democratic primary. Tanden herself puts it best in one of her emails to Podesta: “I would do whatever Hillary needs always. I owe her a lot. And I’m a loyal soldier.” She has also been associated with CAP for nearly its entire existence. She has been president of CAP since 2011, when Podesta, who remains on the board, resigned. She has asserted that, in her function as CAP’s leader, she is not tied to any faction of the Democratic Party, and that “our goal has always been to have a pan-progressive tent.” She has also said, “I put ideas out there, and sometimes they are going to be in line with the most progressive folks and sometimes with the most centrist.” (Tanden also wrote a column for The New Republic in the early 2010s.)

This is Tanden presenting herself as an apolitical arbiter of ideas, a kind of umpire of public policy. Unlike most other players in Washington who derive their power from money or interest groups, Tanden’s considerable clout comes from her status as the head of an ostensibly nonpartisan policy shop. It is the geeky do-gooder’s path to power and influence. But her emails to Podesta mostly involve advice about political tactics and messaging rather than policy, including advice about areas well beyond her area of expertise, health care policy. (Like others in Clintonland, she would not confirm or deny the veracity of the leaked emails.) She repeatedly steers discussion of policy into political directions, judging proposals like the $15 minimum wage by their perceived political impact, not by their merits. Similarly, those who have been deemed to be disloyal to Clinton or too vocal in their opposition—particularly former staffers at CAP or ThinkProgress, CAP’s news site—are shut out.

In many cases, these emails—in which Tanden often uses a private email address not affiliated with CAP—could be construed as two friends talking over a mutual obsession. And many of Tanden’s emails to Podesta could simply be filed under the category of “unsolicited advice,” such as when she advises that Clinton should walk a picket line to show solidarity with striking workers. But when Tanden does provide advice to the campaign, it usually focuses on the political viability of the message, rather than the substance of the policy being discussed. Here, for instance, is a portion of one email Tanden sent before February’s New Hampshire debate between Clinton and Sanders (emphasis added):

So in our effort to pain him as unrealistic, we don’t want to be seen as for the status quo. Therefore, seems to me we need to burnish the idea she will bring change. This is definitely a change electorate, even w/ Dems. So I think you need to take idea of that on through bio. Have her go through the line of her life on children and the change she has fought to make. As an advocate going door to door, then working for Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund, then as First Lady on FMLA, child care, then as Senator and Presidential candidate campaigning on children. Or some other issue - but everything she’s done has been about making change in people’s lives. kids and children are a through line to today though- paid leave/child care/equal pay. But could go health care and expansion of ACA today. I don’t really think the issues matter- it’s more like what the issue tells you about her. In fact, working on an issue when it’s not popular probably is more helpful. Bernie really uses that.

This is a calculus that comes up again and again in Tanden’s emails. It can be seen in her discussions of Black Lives Matter, Wall Street reform, and gun control. She does play the role of policy adviser on welfare, but such emails are largely the exceptions to the rule.

The WikiLeaks emails also reveal that Tanden’s work as a surrogate for the Clinton campaign goes beyond her appearances on television. In a May email, she informs the Clinton campaign that Mary Kay Henry, the president of SEIU, the nation’s largest home health care workers union, wants the union to endorse Clinton without “sturm and drang.” The email exchange starts with Tanden informing the campaign that she would be meeting with Henry and that it was likely an endorsement would come up in their discussion. Ann O’Leary, senior policy adviser to the Clinton campaign (and former CAP vice president), offers to send a campaign staffer, “so we directly are connected and hear their asks.” Here’s Tanden’s response:

I guess I don’t understand your view here. Home health is a lot of money. SEIU generally tries to get more money into the sector. So they would generally like big investments here. Now they pushed hard for ltc in ACA and it collapsed so they are chastised and they don’t have a specific ask at the moment. But as with almost any interest group, there’s a risk of some kind of big ask. I assumed the more you keep their requests indirect the better you are. So I kind of thought this was optimal for you. Therefore I’m not understanding why you want to meet with them even down the road when they are not asking. I think Mary Kay is basically trying to limit the expectations of this side of her house without ignoring them. Like if they push me I can obviously be more separate. Anyway, perhaps I’m overthinking it but those were my assumptions.

Tanden, in other words, is working with the Clinton campaign to limit the risk of a “big ask” from a union that represents an important Democratic constituency. Especially when dealing with progressive policy and its advocates, Tanden works to conserve the Clinton campaign’s political capital, rather than pushing it to spend it on policies that a think tank like CAP would support on the merits.

Her work as a surrogate also involved muffling the voices of those who disagreed with Clinton or supported Bernie Sanders. In a March exchange with Democratic activist Zan Koethi about Zephyr Teachout, the progressive who challenged Andrew Cuomo in the 2013 Democratic primary for New York governor and is now running for Congress, Tanden writes, “I need Zephyr to not be a pain in the ass to Hillary. Do you think she would endorse Bernie? Do you have her contact info?” Tanden then flags Podesta in the exchange, advising the campaign to contact Kirsten Gillibrand, the U.S. senator who took Clinton’s seat in New York after she stepped down in 2008, to get Teachout in line. Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook then informs Podesta, “Talked to Kirsten’s chief. Looks like she’s already expressed support for Bernie (see below), but he thinks they can keep her from being too vocal. I asked Shriock to do the same.”

Tanden tried something similar with Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP (and former senior fellow at CAP) who served as one of Sanders’s most important surrogates during the primary. In a January email, Podesta asked Tanden to stage an “intervention” for Jealous. Tanden seemingly tried, but it didn’t work. In March, she wrote to Podesta, “I got into it w Ben jealous last night and he was all obsessed w how Hillary hasn’t condemned Rahm. I’m sure you guys are all over this for the debate but just thought I’d send in that they may well go there for the debate. My rec is to separate big time.” Here, Tanden figured out that Rahm Emanuel—the mayor of Chicago who was coming under fire for allegedly covering up police brutality against African-Americans—was toxic and told Podesta to steer clear. But once again, the purpose of her role appeared to be to silence dissenters or bring them into the Clinton fold, not to add their ideas to the “pan-progressive tent” she once described.

Much ado has been made over the language that Tanden uses in the emails against people she disagrees with—calling former ThinkProgress writers Zaid Jilani and Lee Fang “freaks,” Mayor Bill de Blasio “insufferable,” and Faiz Shakir, a former Podesta and Tanden protege, “a fucker” for deciding to advise Sanders. As many—including Larry Lessig, colorfully described in a Tanden email himself—have pointed out, it is unfair to judge Tanden by how she expresses herself in private. After all, most of us probably have more than a few “fuckers” in our inboxes. At the same time, it is part of a pattern of freezing out those who don’t toe the line, a disturbing predilection for someone who is a kind of gatekeeper for what ideas are acceptable in Democratic politics.

When it comes to advising the campaign on policy, the emails show Tanden pushing proposals based on their political expediency to the Clinton campaign. Take the minimum wage, one of the most divisive issues between Clinton and Sanders during the primary. Clinton campaigned on a $12 minimum wage, while Sanders supported $15. As first reported by The Intercept, Tanden wrote an email advising the campaign against a $15 minimum wage, stating, “Substantively, we have not supported $15 – you will get a fair number of liberal economists who will say it will lose jobs. Politically, we are not getting any pressure to join this from our end. I leave it to you guys to judge what that means for you. But I’m not sweating it.” (A response by Jake Sullivan, a Clinton adviser, indicated that John Podesta actually wanted to support a $15 wage.)

There is no substantive research showing the effects of large increases in the minimum wage on jobs, because there is a lack of real-world evidence. But studies show that moderate increases in the minimum wage have little to no impact on employment. And even CAP has supported Fight for $15 in New York and California—Tanden herself wrote in a statement, “A $15 hourly minimum wage will finally mean a living wage for millions of Californians.” In her email to Podesta, Tanden steers the campaign away from $15 without any basis on policy research from CAP or elsewhere that assesses the effects of such a wage increase. (Saying “you will get a fair number of liberal economists who will say it will lose jobs” is not the same as saying there is research that shows it will lose jobs.) Instead, she advises the Clinton campaign against it because she believes that it is not a good political move for Clinton.

The same goes for Glass-Steagall, the law separating commercial and investment banking that was partly repealed by Bill Clinton in 1999. Reinstating the divide was another point of contention between Sanders and Clinton during the primary. In an email to Podesta, Tanden notes that Sanders’s “entire message” at one of his rallies was Glass-Steagall, and asks if “someone polled this issue. Is it actually unpopular?” Podesta replies, “People don’t get it so it’s not like sending people to jail which people really love.” Later, Tanden advises for Clinton to hedge her position on Glass-Steagall, and leave it open-ended (emphasis added):

i think most people know I worry that this is the closest thing to an Iraq vote we have to face us. And a big potential problem in the debate. Why can’t she say the following: Too big to fail are problems. Should never happen again etc. I will take steps - higher cap requirements, whatever you have on list -to ensure we protect Americans. I think those will work better. I will work every day to make sure we protect Americans so they never suffer for the excesses on Wall Street. But if banks are growing too big to manage and we need to take these steps tetc etc, believe me I will work to reinstate glass steagall in a heartbeat bc this Americans losing so much for the banks can never happen again. She’s not conceding it was responsible for the financial crisis. But her openness will be better than a hard and fast position that puts her on the bank side of the ledger. Anyway I just offer it as a thought.

Tanden is opposed to Clinton coming out in favor of reinstating Glass-Steagall not based on any actual policy arguments (which exist), but rather based on how Clinton can position herself against Sanders. On the flip side, the most prevalent argument against reinstating Glass-Steagall—that the law was written over 80 years ago, and we need banking regulation for the 21st century—is also not made. The passage is notable for its total lack of ideas, let alone positive ones. Tanden is advising Clinton to adopt a position in which she would provide as little information as possible about her own policy preferences with regard to the regulation of the financial industry.

In a 30-minute phone interview with The New Republic, Tanden stood by the quality of CAP’s work and the organization’s ability to push a diverse set of progressive ideas, pointing to CAP proposals like paid family leave, which were adopted by Sanders and not Clinton. She noted CAP’s work on issues like income inequality, foreign policy, and education, some of which have not been picked up by Clinton. She underscored the appearances that Senator Elizabeth Warren, a progressive darling, has made at CAP, as well as her endorsement of CAP policies. “I think sometimes people who criticize CAP are confusing being focused both on an idea and making it happen as being purely around electoral results,” Tanden said. “You will see that there is no email from me where I say, ‘We really have to do this report because it will help Hillary.’”

Tanden also pointed out that CAP is no more political today than it was eight years ago, when it ran an “overt war room that was almost entirely focused on the presidential race” and Podesta was simultaneously running The Fund for America, a political action committee. And unlike other 501(c)(4)s, CAP has never run a political ad.

Tanden is insistent that her work on behalf of Clinton has no bearing on her work at CAP, and that she has consistently told CAP staffers that this is the case. “I’ve made clear to CAP staff multiple times that our job is not to help one campaign or another, it’s really to put out ideas,” she said. Tanden argues that she is doing what think tank presidents have always done: Work with campaigns on policies and messages to get candidates elected and, later, legislation passed. Her emails with Podesta, it is worth noting, are only one facet of her professional life, and he is a longtime friend and coworker.

Still, this doesn’t quite resolve the tension between CAP’s formal proposals and the informal proposals its president is pushing through back channels to the head of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It is almost as if they are working toward different ends. And it makes one wonder what Neera Tanden would advocate in a Clinton administration.

The response to the Podesta emails has been all over the map. Some are inclined to see dark conspiracies at work. Others have scrambled to assert just how mundane the emails are. It’s the “business as usual” defense—that there is nothing particularly newsworthy in the emails because they merely confirm what everyone already knows about how campaigns work.

But the average voter may not know that this is how campaigns work. They don’t know how political operatives conduct their day-to-day basis, or how they make their decisions. They don’t know the extent of the influence of a single think tank and its president, who in public has sought to downplay her involvement in politics and has presented her role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign in a decidedly more benign light. That is partly the news value of the Podesta emails.

Furthermore, deeming all this to be “business as usual” isn’t actually a defense of said business. It’s true that the emails are not evidence of some nefarious scheme by a shadowy organization to destroy the left and crush the American worker. It’s true that the sausage-making is always going to be unappetizing. But if CAP was created to put an emphasis on the policy side of the ledger, and furthermore was intended to push not only the U.S. government in general, but the Democratic Party in particular, in new directions, then we can see the ways in which Tanden is working at cross purposes with her own organization, since the result of her efforts in many instances is to further entrench the status of one particular Democratic faction. As Matthew Duss, a former senior policy analyst at CAP who now heads the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told The New Republic, “CAP has become more comfortable working within the status quo of Washington than moving the boundaries to the left as was initially envisioned.”

In this respect, yes, Tanden’s story is a typical one. As the Podesta emails show time and again, this is just how Washington works. Call it the banality of D.C. politics.