For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out Kyrsten Sinema’s game.
Frustrating though he might be, Joe Manchin at least makes a kind of sense. He’s the last major Democrat standing in a state Donald Trump won by 40 points. Despite being a fixture of West Virginia politics, he was barely re-elected in 2018’s blue wave. If he runs again, he’s almost certain to lose in 2024; any chance of winning will require him to distance himself from the Democratic Party.
Besides, Manchin has never claimed to be progressive or liberal. The Maserati-driving coal millionaire is only considered a “moderate” because the Republican Party has skewed our perception of what conservatism looks like. And by all accounts, he really does get high on his own can’t-we-all-get-along supply.
The point is, he doesn’t need the Democratic Party. There’s nothing Chuck Schumer or Joe Biden can do to or for him. But they need him to accomplish anything. He holds the cards.
Sinema is a different story. Sure, so long as she’s one of 50 Senate Democrats, the Arizona senator can block legislation the same as Manchin — and she has. She’s been an enthusiastic thorn in the administration’s side on raising the minimum wage, reining in Big Pharma, taxing the wealthy, addressing climate change and, most recently, protecting voting rights from state-level Republican attacks.
Of course, Sinema doesn’t say she opposes voting rights legislation. But she — like Manchin — refuses to contemplate tweaking the Senate’s filibuster to allow that legislation to pass in the face of a Republican blockade. Effectively, it’s the same thing.
Unlike Manchin, however, Sinema has something to lose. Or, at least, you’d think she does.
Sinema’s obstinance hasn’t endeared her to her home state. Her approval ratings are slightly underwater. Interestingly, the bulk of her support comes from Republicans; most Democrats don’t like her. In fact, nearly three-quarters of Arizona Dems say they’d support someone else in a primary.
Arizona is a just-right-of-center swing state. Sinema and Biden won it narrowly in 2018 and 2020, respectively. Politically, it makes sense to buck the party occasionally.
But ostentatiously kneecapping the president’s agenda at every turn isn’t the only path to victory. Mark Kelly, the Democrat who won a special election in 2020 to serve the rest of John McCain’s term, is slightly underwater, too. However, depending on the GOP nominee, his race is considered a toss-up or leaning Dem.
Sinema, on the other hand, is a dead senator walking. She’ll either get primaried in 2024 and lose, or she’ll run as an independent and lose. When given a choice, the Republicans who tell pollsters they approve of her performance — which is to say, they approve of her being a roadblock — will instead opt for a true believer. She must know that.
Then again, former colleagues have described her as brilliant but self-absorbed, convinced she’s the smartest person in the room. Perhaps she thinks she sees something everyone else missed.
It’s possible she’ll leverage her big-donor connections into a high-powered consultancy or corporate position when her term ends. On Twitter, Amy Siskind, the president of women’s advocacy organization The New Agenda, said an Arizona insider told her Sinema plans to run for president in 2024 “as the candidate of the middle. She has convinced herself this is her calling.”
I wouldn’t put it past her, if only because it’s clear Sinema’s only North Star is her own ambition. Ideology is beside the point to her. She ran for office as a Green Party activist, and now she’s Fox News’ favorite Democrat.
Her fealty to the filibuster makes sense when viewed through this prism. She can pay lip service to voting rights legislation while ensuring the bill never sees the light of day.
So last Thursday, just before President Biden came to Capitol Hill to urge Senate Democrats to create a filibuster carve-out for voting rights, Sinema took to the Senate floor to announce that she would not. “We have but one democracy,” she said. “We can only survive, we can only keep her, if we do so together.”
Surely, she’s not dumb enough to believe that.
Surely, Sinema knows that the filibuster’s origin story is not as a protector of democracy but a defender of white supremacy — that before its use became de rigueur, white supremacists deployed the filibuster against civil rights and anti-discrimination bills in 1874, 1875, 1945, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1984, as well as anti-lynching litigation in 1921, 1922, 1925, 1935 and 1938, as well as the creation of a monument to Black World War I soldiers in 1926, an extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, and the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day federal holiday in 1983.
Surely, Sinema knows the filibuster is being used to the same effect here — not to aid democracy, but to break it. And by refusing to junk it, she’s not only taking the country further from majoritarian rule but also — in this case — allowing Republican legislatures to make it harder for Black and Brown people to vote.
That’s the opposite of democracy.
It’s also the opposite of a functioning government. The modern-day filibuster produces a perpetual stalemate, which leads to a dysfunctional government. A dysfunctional, ineffective government erodes trust in institutions, which gives rise to conspiracy theories and radicalism — which leads to a more dysfunctional government.
Sinema probably knows that, too.