What Is Kyrsten Sinema Doing?

A prediction

In one respect, that’s an easy question to answer: Kyrsten Sinema is attempting to derail the reconciliation bill, or, failing that, to at least vastly pare back its more progressive elements, on behalf of the donors and lobbyists whose interests she represents. But it’s very possible to do that without making as much of a national fool of yourself as she has, or without expressing quite so much contempt for your own constituents, erstwhile supporters, and even your fellow Democratic senators. 

Mark Warner, for example, does this all the time, but quietly. He opposes the PRO Act. He doesn’t ostentatiously depart Washington in the midst of high-stakes negotiations to attend fundraisers. What makes the “what is Sinema doing?” question interesting is that so much of what she is doing is seemingly counterproductive to the goals of her own project. In order to advance the interests of capital as a Democratic senator, it helps to remain a Democratic senator. Warner negotiates to gut progressive priorities behind closed doors. Sinema outright refuses to negotiate

Now, she has tanked her own support among Arizona Democrats. Her reelection is in jeopardy. She has alienated precisely the people that got her the Democratic nomination to begin with, and Arizona is a purple state with a few other broadly acceptable Democratic politicians who could easily replace her on the ballot and have an equally good shot at winning a general election.

This is why a common theory of Sinema (and it’s a perfectly reasonable one) is that she is simply looking to maximize her payout after her term is up. She comes from modest means, and being a member of Congress has become a path to great wealth. She does Pharma’s bidding now, she ends up on a corporate board the day the 118th Congress gavels in. But, again, you don’t have to act like Sinema is acting now to follow that path. The revolving door revolves for pretty much anyone. If you want a corporate sinecure, you don’t need to intentionally tank your own reelection by accepting public responsibility for killing literally the single most popular part of the Democratic agenda—you just need to have a pulse and a good relationship with people still in Congress.

One reason to sabotage your own party on behalf of your donors might be to win the undying loyalty of those donors, even if it comes at the expense of your standing in the party. That might be a trade worth making if you don’t care about your standing in the party. It might be doubly beneficial if you think, perhaps, that earning the scorn of your own party is not something to carefully avoid, but something to welcome. If you could rely on an extensive network of big-money donors—ones whose interests you serve so faithfully that they wouldn’t even support a Republican against you—you might not need the local Democratic Party apparatus at all.

A smart Talking Points Memo reader made a convincing case last month that Sinema’s strategy is to win her next primary with independent (and former Republican) voters. (Arizona primary elections are open to voters unaffiliated with any party.*) Based on her political history and her in-state messaging it seems clear that she believes she can cultivate enough support from Arizona Republicans and independents to beat back a more liberal primary challenger. 

If Sinema does manage to sink Joe Biden’s first-term agenda (with an assist, obviously, from the geniuses who decided to put most of Joe Biden’s first-term agenda in a single must-pass bill, and then split that bill into a “moderate” bit and a “progressive” bit), it is harder to believe she could survive a credible primary challenge even with independent and Republican support. But she might’ve already decided she doesn’t need to win the primary.

This well-reported piece by the Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey actually, I think, explains everything Sinema is doing, at least strategically. As Brodey reports, Sinema is not just pissing off Democrats in Washington; she seems to be systematically extricating herself from the entire local party structure that got her elected, and even alienating people that considered her a friend. According to Brodey’s reporting, “several of Sinema’s close personal friendships have ended abruptly and, to them, under confusing circumstances.” One former ally tells him that “when I talk to other individuals that consider themselves friends of hers, they told me they haven’t spoken to her in over a year.”

Meanwhile, as she completely severs ties with the local Democratic Party, she is also carefully cultivating a wealthy donor base. She keeps leaving Washington to do fundraisers with rich people! That partially supports the “Kyrsten Sinema is interviewing for her next job” theory, but it also is a perfectly sensible thing to do if you plan is to win your next election without the support of the local Democratic Party.

I am not really a bettor, but I’m pretty sure, right now, that Kyrsten Sinema is going to formally leave the Democratic Party in the near future, probably after the 2022 midterms. I also think that if Republicans win control of the Senate in those midterms, she will choose to caucus with them. I suspect Sinema decided to leave the party years ago and has simply been waiting for the most dramatic moment to do so. With Democrats currently occupying the White House and having a very slim majority in the Senate, it makes sense to continue caucusing with them to maximize her power; if Republicans retake the chamber in 2023, it will suddenly be the case that The American People Have Spoken and The Democratic Party Has Strayed Too Far From Responsible Moderation, and The Best Way to Deliver for Arizona Is to Be Part of the Senate Majority.

The objections to this are obvious. It’s very hard for independents to win elections in the U.S. If she ran against a Republican and a Democrat in 2024, the likeliest scenario is that she’d serve as a spoiler and hand the election to the Republican. She can never be conservative enough to beat a Trumpian Republican without the support of loyal Democrats she is currently alienating. She may wish to follow in his footsteps, but she does not have John McCain’s biography, charisma, reliably positive media coverage, or loyal base of support. She doesn’t even have Joe Lieberman’s charisma or base of support.

But you haven’t considered Sinema’s airtight rebuttal to all of that: that she, Kyrsten Sinema, is a politics genius and the protagonist of history. The skeleton key to Sinema’s behavior isn’t really hidden and unknowable; it’s apparent in every staff-sourced story about her impressive spreadsheet skills and every quote about how she is, in the words of a Republican consultant who spoke to the Daily Beast, “her own boss.” Every step of her improbable journey from activist to U.S. senator has seemingly strengthened her own sense of mastery of the political moment. The fact that the local activists and volunteers who now seek her attention seem to think that they played some role in her electoral success probably offends her. After all, she was once like them: a loser criticizing winners like Joe Lieberman. Now the fate of a presidency is in her hands. What use does someone like that have for the Arizona Democratic Party?

*I originally incorrectly described Arizona’s primary election rules. I apologize for the error.

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The Politics of Everything, Episode 36

Laura and I wanted to do an episode on Succession (its third season premiere is this weekend) because she wanted to explore the question of why it is so popular among a particular breed of journalist and I wanted to talk about everyone’s accent work but especially Brian Cox’s. We’re joined by Daniel D’Addario, the chief television critic at Variety, and Jennifer Taub, author of Big Dirty Money: Making White Collar Criminals Pay. It’s a fun one, both in the normal sense of fun and in my sense of fun (explaining the story of Arthur Andersen).