By Michelle Cottle
Ms. Cottle is a member of the editorial board.
Despite her flamboyant persona — the Crayola-colored wigs, the edgy outfits, the in-your-face bling — Senator Kyrsten Sinema rarely talks smack about other lawmakers. But when Democratic leaders delayed a promised House vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Arizona Democrat had helped spearhead, she let loose.
Blasting her own leadership, she decried the delay as “inexcusable” and an “ineffective stunt to gain leverage over a separate proposal,” the president’s sweeping social spending plan. Progressives, meanwhile, remain furious at her over a multitude of perceived betrayals: not only impeding the Build Back Better plan, but also voting against an increase in the minimum wage and stalwartly protecting the filibuster, thus giving the Republican minority the power to essentially veto most legislation.
Internecine clashes are an enduring fact of political life. In 1859, fierce disagreements within the Democratic Party over slavery led to the death of one senator in a duel with the chief justice of the California Supreme Court. More recently and less lethally, senators from Joe Manchin to John McCain to Joe Lieberman have feuded with elements of their parties, with some abandoning their team altogether. (See: Arlen Specter, Jim Jeffords, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Richard Shelby and Strom Thurmond.)
Ms. Sinema could well be on a similar path. The Arizona Democratic Party has threatened a vote of no confidence if she persists in her obstructionism. Her office has been besieged by protesters. Democratic colleagues are slagging her in the media. Her poll numbers with Arizona Democrats are falling, and progressive groups are already recruiting primary challengers for her in 2024, when she’s up for re-election. Earlier this month, while she was home in Arizona, activists tailed her into a university restroom and recorded themselves lambasting her through the stall door.
Part of what is driving Democrats so crazy is her inscrutability. It’s not simply that she refuses to publicly discuss her specific objections to the Build Back Better plan; people just don’t have a clear sense of what matters to her — of what her core principles are. Absent that, her critics have increasingly ascribed her behavior to a slurry of narcissism, opportunism and obeisance to corporate interests.
Some have suggested that she’s charting a path out of office entirely. But Ms. Sinema’s better course may be not to leave the Senate but to split with her party. Her departure might even wind up being a positive for all involved.
Throwing in with Republicans seems like a bridge too far. It’s not as though Ms. Sinema is an actual conservative. But easing over into the independent column could be a gentler, less disruptive transition. She could still caucus with the Democrats, much like her independent colleagues Angus King and Bernie Sanders.
A split still wouldn’t be easy. The logistics would be a nightmare. And while open relationships often sound great in theory, they can be excruciating to navigate. But Ms. Sinema has a better shot than most at not just surviving such a shift, but becoming a truly independent force to be reckoned with — maybe even a power broker for years to come.
This is what many of her critics miss. They see her as a chameleon, unprincipled and narcissistic, an intellectual lightweight without any steady, guiding tenets. But she does have a guiding principle. She holds fast to an abhorrence of the toxicity and dysfunction of the hyper-polarized political system, brandishing a potent combination of disgust, frustration and moderation that could, come to think of it, put her in sync with a big slice of Americans.
Ms. Sinema is, at heart, a Democrat of convenience and expediency; she has a chance now to show that independents aren’t just a New England eccentricity. Her early allegiance was to the Green Party, and she worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign — an animating message of which was that the major parties were two sides of the same corrupt, self-serving coin. Her first run for office was for the Phoenix City Council in 2001. She raised little money — back then, she saw campaign donations as “bribery” — and she lost. The next year, she ran for the State Legislature as an independent. She lost, again, and blamed the local Democratic Party for labeling her “too extreme.”
In the years after Sept. 11, Ms. Sinema was a hard-charging peace activist. (Her decision to attend at least one protest rocking a pink tutu became a Republican line of attack against her.) In 2003, she helped lead a demonstration in Tucson against the presidential campaign of Mr. Lieberman, a hawkish Democrat from Connecticut who later became an independent. “He’s a shame to Democrats,” she charged. “I don’t even know why he’s running. He seems to want to get Republicans voting for him — what kind of strategy is that?”
A year later, having joined the Democratic Party, she won a seat in the State Legislature.
But her involvement with progressive activists — both as one herself and later as an elected official — left some scars. In her 2009 book, “Unite and Conquer,” Ms. Sinema emerges as a progressive disillusioned by the foibles and limitations of progressive activism. The book, on coalition building, is awash in mocking caricatures of progressives as smug, ineffectual, rigid, self-serious, wonky, disorganized know-it-alls. Recalling her own experiences, she tosses out tough-love observations such as, “Progressives love to talk about coalitions, but we’re not very good at creating or maintaining them,” and “since we’re so smart and have all the answers to the world’s problems, you’d think that we progressives would get more done.”
And don’t get her started on identity politics, which she says boils down to this: “I am different from you in some fundamental respect and therefore need my own group that understands me. And also, I can’t work with you.”
Ms. Sinema was clearly stung by her experience as a newbie state legislator helping to lead the successful charge to block an anti-gay marriage amendment in 2006. She argued that all unmarried couples would suffer if the state prohibited the legal recognition of domestic partnerships. Some in the L.G.B.T.Q. community chided her for not focusing on their “trials and tribulations,” as she puts it. “I was surprised by the reaction,” she writes, “until I remembered identity politics.”
With their fanatical “obsession with victimhood,” she declares, progressives will always struggle to create “effective coalitions.” This focus on differences rather than shared interests is one of the political tendencies she sees herself fighting against.
That rejection of factionalism may be more central to her identity than any of her legislative positions. On policy, Ms. Sinema doesn’t seem that out of bounds for a moderate Democrat. She is pro-choice and has a respectable record on environmental issues. She supports voting rights protections (even if she won’t help abolish the filibuster to achieve it), the Dream Act and permanent renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. Having grown up poor — she says her family was even homeless for a time — she recognizes the value of a government safety net, though she prefers that the net be tailored and targeted. She is more hawkish than many in her party on border security, but that’s not altogether unusual for a Democrat representing a border state.
In Washington, she sits on the veterans affairs committee, and many of the bills she has sponsored have focused on aiding veterans, service members and their families. Some have even made it into law, including a measure making it easier for veterans to access benefits and other support. In her first speech on the Senate floor, Ms. Sinema grew teary sharing the story of an Iraq war vet who took his own life. She stressed that this was the kind of unglamorous yet important — and, of course, bipartisan — work on which she wanted to spend her time.
This summer, Ms. Sinema took a lead role in hammering out an infrastructure deal, at the president’s request, after Mr. Biden’s early negotiations with Republicans were declared dead in June. The mission seemed tailor made for a self-proclaimed finder of common ground.
“She was a bit of a force to be reckoned with when we would be in some of these meetings,” recalls Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican and a member of the negotiating pod. “We’d be in the thick of things, not necessarily seeing eye to eye, people would start digging up old arguments that we’d already moved beyond, and she would just snap us back to attention and say, ‘Look, we’ve already resolved that. We’ve got to move on.’”
When the Senate passed the bill in August, it was hailed as a coup for Ms. Sinema, despite progressives’ dislike of the compromise package. During the summer recess, she talked up the agreement with officials and media outlets back in Arizona, spotlighting its bipartisan nature as well as its content. This is the achievement she clearly wants to be identified with — not the social spending package that Democrats are trying to pass on a party-line vote, which she has spent the past few months trying to whittle down.
The senator, who declined interview requests, fancies herself a role model for a new ethos favoring “a higher road of engagement that focuses on finding common ground,” as she put it in “Unite and Conquer.”
This kind of talk may sound like a mishmash of empty, high-minded, self-justifying blather. But Ms. Sinema seems wedded to her model of aggressive across-the-aisle outreach — even now that it is hurting her with Democrats and even some independents back home.
The senator’s preoccupation with bipartisanship is partly a matter of experience and expediency. Among registered voters in Arizona, both Republicans and independents outnumber Democrats. The G.O.P. has controlled the State House for more than half a century and the State Senate for all but a few years in that same period. Ms. Sinema was Arizona’s first Democratic senator elected in three decades.
The bulk of her political career has been spent in the minority. In “Unite and Conquer,” she recalls blowing into her first session of the State Legislature “full of vim and vigor, ready to face off for justice — which made me rather annoying.” She gave “scathing,” self-righteous speeches against bills, only to watch those bills pass with supermajorities. Shut out of the legislative process, she writes, “I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing because it wasn’t working for me and I hated it.”
Ms. Sinema absorbed the lesson that, to wield influence, even around the edges, she had to learn to play nice with the opposition.
The mind-set of being in the minority still has a grip on her, says Chad Campbell, an old friend who served with her in the State House. “She knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed by the majority party,” says Mr. Campbell.
When Ms. Sinema ran for Congress in 2012, in a new swing district, her Republican opponent painted her as a lefty wingnut. She promised voters she’d stay focused on finding common political ground. Even then, she was criticized for tacking right in pursuit of broader support. In the House, she threw in with the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of Democratic moderates. She voted against Nancy Pelosi as leader. Running for the Senate in 2018, she doubled down on her brand as a problem solver unwilling to let partisan games stand in the way of Getting Stuff Done.
Back then, her gadfly behavior could be shrugged off as mildly irritating, because the Democrats weren’t in a position to get anything done anyway. But now, she is threatening not only their agenda, but possibly their political future.
By Senate standards, Ms. Sinema is an odd duck: a nonreligious openly bisexual young woman with a salty wit and a flair for the dramatic. She once presided over the chamber sporting a hot-pink top that read “Dangerous Creature.”
Her antics prompt eye-rolling. “I think sometimes people make the assumption that she’s not very serious,” says Ms. Murkowski. “Sometimes she has been underestimated, and I think maybe she privately delights in that.”
Ms. Sinema is said to relish her reputation as an eccentric rebel. It fits her sense of self. For Ms. Sinema, not being a toe-the-line team player is a core value — a defining plank in her conception of how politics should be practiced. She sees strict party loyalty as a lazy, shallow impulse, and a willingness to court the wrath of one’s own teammates as a sign of intellectual and ethical seriousness. “It’s the simplest thing in the world to line up on either side of a partisan battle,” she said in her first floor speech. “What’s harder though is ignoring the chaos and getting out of our comfort zones to build coalitions and get things done.”
At times it can feel as though she has passed through the bipartisan zone to embrace a kind of reverse partisanship. Take her stance on the filibuster. Determined to preserve the rules of the game, she will stand back as Republicans openly rig it in their favor. And each time she is cheered by the opposition and vilified by her own team, it feeds into her preconceptions about it requiring political courage not to be a party drone.
This bodes ill for Democrats’ efforts to press Ms. Sinema into falling in line behind the president’s social spending package. To her, friendly fire is proof that she is doing the right thing.
Splitting with her party would be a huge risk for Ms. Sinema. The practical challenges alone are mind-boggling. What agreement would she need to work out with her caucus to minimize blowback? When and how would she break the news to the state party? To voters? What would it take to get on the ballot as an independent? How would she fare without the infrastructure — and cash — that a major party brings? The current two-team system makes life tough for free agents.
But, unlike when she was starting out, Ms. Sinema enjoys the formidable advantages of incumbency. She has her own power base. She has name recognition and an explicitly mavericky brand. “People really don’t think she cares about party,” says a Democratic strategist who has worked on campaigns in the state. “They see her tweaking Democrats all the time, and they love that about her.”
Even as this costs her with Democrats, for now at least, it may resonate with centrists, independents and even moderate Republicans after this latest fight fades. Among Arizona independents, she has a net favorability of plus-6 points (higher than the state’s less incendiary senator, Mark Kelly) in a September poll by OH Predictive Insights. And her job approval among Republicans is strikingly high: 43 percent, according to a recent Morning Consult poll (which showed a slight net negative approval among independents). It’s hard to know how many of those voters would cross the aisle in a general election. But if Arizona’s Republican Party goes all in on Trumpism and picks a far-right nominee, Ms. Sinema could well overperform with moderates.
Certainly, a whole lot of Americans hate the partisan games and nastiness that characterize today’s politics. Joe Biden won the presidency by promising to start the healing. Similarly, a whole lot of folks hate the Political Establishment, which they see as controlled by corrupt, self-serving elites. Donald Trump used this animus as a cornerstone of his grievance politics. Ms. Sinema is solidly positioned to knit these threads together into a new breed of post-partisan, anti-establishment, anti-elitism — minus Mr. Trump’s rank bigotry of course. She could practically write the messaging for an independent candidacy in her sleep.
If she struck out on her own, she could perhaps settle into being an independent rather than worrying about spotlighting her independence. This might not alter her policy positions, but maybe she wouldn’t feel compelled to make such a show of it, as when she flashed her infamous thumbs-down-curtsy in voting against including an increase in the minimum wage in a coronavirus relief package. Similarly, if she dropped the party label, maybe Democrats would eventually stop regarding every disagreement as treason. They’d come to expect her to go her own way from time to time. With a little luck, and the pressure of total commitment gone, everyone might wind up getting along better than ever.
All that said, the deck is stacked against her. But Ms. Sinema loves a good challenge, and she fancies herself a trailblazer. If she really wants to make politics safe for independent voices, she may decide it’s worth taking the leap.
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