Presidential nominees and Twitter: Descending from ideas to insults

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

Before the turn of the century the term “controversial” was reserved for daring individuals that injected the public discourse with original or contrarian ideas.

Whenever a U.S. President selected such a person for an executive position, it started a controversy that put two very simple but fundamentally different questions on a collision course.

1). Are the ideas actually controversial?

2). Are the ideas too controversial for the public?

In 1993, President Bill Clinton selected two Black women, Lani Guinier and Joycelyn Elders, for positions in the Clinton administration. Guinier was nominated for assistant attorney general, but Clinton withdrew her nomination, and Elders survived her confirmation hearing, but was forced to resign a year later.

Were Guinier’s ideas controversial?

Guinier was a tenured law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She advocated two ideas that came under fire:

1). Expanding Affirmative Action

2). Race-conscious districting, i.e., shaping electoral districts to ensure a Black majority

The first idea wasn’t actually controversial. It was just unpopular among the opposition party. The second idea actually was controversial and too controversial for the public. Republican lawmakers stated Guinier believed “only Blacks could represent Blacks” and that made her a racially polarizing figure. Then Democratic Senators recommended to Clinton that he withdraw Guinier’s nomination because her interviews in the Senate weren’t going well and Clinton took their advice.

Were Elders’ ideas controversial?

In 1987, then-Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, appointed Elders as Director of Arkansas Department of Health. After Clinton won the presidency, Elders was his first choice for Surgeon General. Elders held ideas that were actually controversial and too controversial for the public:

1). Advocating the distribution of contraceptives in public schools

2). The legalization of drugs

Despite these “controversial” views Elders was confirmed and became the first African American and the second woman to serve as the Surgeon General.

Then in 1994, at a United Nations conference on AIDS, Elders suggested young people should be taught masturbation to prevent them from riskier forms of sex. Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, famously said, “There have been too many areas where the President does not agree with her views. This is just one too many.”

Whether it was the withdrawal of Guinier’s nomination or the forced resignation of Elders, the controversies were over ideas that have societal consequences.

Recently, President-elect Joe Biden nominated Neera Tanden to be the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden is the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank. The press indicated that Tanden’s nomination would set the stage for a big confirmation battle. With that being said, one would think the president and CEO of a liberal think-tank would be opposed due to controversial ideas like Guinier and Elders.

That’s not the case.

The Hill reported, Senate Republicans vowed to oppose Tanden because she often “slammed” GOP lawmakers on Twitter and referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “Moscow Mitch”.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) stated, Tanden’s combative and insulting comments about many members of the Senate, mainly on our side of the aisle, creates a problematic path to confirmation.

The slogan of the Washington Post is “democracy dies in darkness,” but darkness spreads when ideas disappear and the social consequences of insults dominate the public discourse.

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