Liberals and Welfare Reform: Denying the Damage They’ve Done

In a recent POLITICO interview Hillary Clinton confidant Neera Tanden said she was always “opposed to welfare reform.”

“I never worked on— was never involved with welfare reform,” said Tanden, the CEO of the Center for American Progress and former aide to Clinton during the latter’s time as both First Lady and Senator from New York.

That’s not true— but Tanden’s reflexive denial is standard fare from the Clintons and their surrogates.

Welfare reform is a particularly touchy subject for the Clinton camp. The bill was seen as widely destructive and has had almost universally negative consequences in the 20 years since its passage.

Tanden’s involvement in the law’s implementation after 1996— however limited— has been the subject of some of the more effective challenges to her advocacy for Clinton.

The specter of welfare reform has haunted Tanden’s social media all year.

In May of this year, a fight on Twitter between Tanden and progressive blogger Matt Bruenig ended with Bruenig losing his position with the American think tank Demos. Here‘s a good overview from Gawker (RIP).

Most recently, The Intercept reporter Zaid Jilani mentioned that White House Domestic Policy head Bruce Reed acknowledged during an interview that Tanden was involved in welfare reform implementation.

Reed was the architect of the welfare reform bill in 1996 and stayed in the White House through the end of the Clinton administration, so it stands to reason he might know what he’s talking about. When faced with Reed’s statement, Tanden flatly denied any involvement in drafting the bill (which nobody suggested she had been involved in) and in implementation of welfare reform in any way.

Not to be dissuaded, Jilani produced audio of the exchange. Tanden then posted what she said was an email from Reed absolving her of any involvement.

I watched this exchange with some interest and went to the Clinton Library’s digital archive to see what I could find. I dug up three documents related to welfare and bearing Tanden’s name via cc. They are:

A fax header for a packet on welfare implementation re children’s benefits; a cc on an American Public Welfare Association document on how the law’s implementation would affect children; and, perhaps most revealing, a cc on an internal White House document clearly plotting out how to implement the law’s harsh penalties while maintaining other benefits.

Twitter user @vabayad also dug up documents referring to Tanden’s involvement.

The evidence I found indicates that Tanden was at least tangentially involved in the implementation of the law, if only on how it affected child welfare in the US. At the very least she helped to manage how the law would affect its victims— and that at least meets the standard of involvement in implementation.

So why lie? Why not just admit involvement, frame it as protecting those most negatively affected by the law, and move on?

Apparently admitting blame is not the way things are done in the Clintonian spin zone. For the Clintons and their surrogates, it’s better to deny deny deny.

Acknowledging any involvement in a politically unpopular policy would be worse than admitting involvement with the added nuance of what that involvement meant in practice.

It’s disappointing. But not surprising.

You can hear Tanden on her time in the White House and welfare reform beginning at 17:20 here.

 Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England

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