Yesterday, just as the bipartisan infrastructure mini-bill was coming together, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) announced she didn’t support the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation plan – where most of the Biden agenda is housed. Freak out? I wouldn’t.
First of all while this was played as a rejection of the bill that’s really not how it reads to me. It’s the vaguest of comments that seems focused on the size of the bill. It leaves all her options open and plenty of room to nitpick a few dollars here and there. I would expect that both Sinema and Manchin will work to shave some spending off the size of the bill over the next couple months. That’s similar to what Manchin did during the passage of the original COVID relief bill.
I think this is best interpreted as Sinema throwing up a flag that she’s going to continue to preen and create drama for the purpose of building a reputation as an uber-‘moderate’ and generally have everyone kiss up to her. She wants to come out of this as the person who wasn’t totally down with Democratic priorities and shaved the numbers down, at least a bit. If she really wanted to stop the process she wouldn’t vote to let it begin, which she is. That tells you the story.
The most interesting thing to me is that Joe Manchin seemed to signal he’s totally on board. Now I suspect that both will try to shave the top line numbers down a bit. But what interests me here is that Manchin doesn’t seem entirely in sync with Sinema. And here’s why that’s important. Manchin is from a very red state. He’s got his own politics and set of concerns that seems to work for him in his state but he rarely actually shuts his party down on critical stuff. None of this is new for Manchin. His vote is just more pivotal. Sinema meanwhile is a preening phony. She started out as a member of the Green party. Then she was progressive Democrat. Now she’s an uber ‘centrist’. She’s a total phony and I doubt very much that she will be able to pull any of this off if she’s there alone without Manchin. Without Manchin, she’ll fold.
So, we’ll have to see how this plays out. But I don’t see this as a real threat to the two-part package infrastructure deal that has been coming into view for the last few weeks. This is Sinema putting everyone on notice that she wants to have some more drama and spotlight and will probably extract some non-trivial but not too significant reductions in the size of the overall package.
As a separate but related matter, most of you who’ve followed what I write over the years will know that I rarely ever support primary challenges. I’m not against them. They serve an important purpose, not least of which is no one is entitled to a seat. It’s just not my thing. I’d make an exception for Sinema. She’s a destructive force in the Democratic caucus and Democratic politics generally.
Most pushes for primaries involve partisans being mad that a given Democrat is out of sync with the national party’s priorities when they are – at least arguably – in sync with their state or district. Manchin is good albeit somewhat extreme example of that. That’s not really the case with Sinema. This is more the party being strung along by her ego trip. The best read of her is that she’s doing this stuff to live down her earlier lefty politics. Arizona isn’t a shoo-in for any Democrat. But she brings no special magic to the equation. There’s nothing about the state that requires her current antics.
One thing that people tend to forget is that her colleague Mark Kelly is up for reelection in 2022. And her antics make things much harder for him.
Ideally and in theory, Sinema would be defeated in a Democratic primary in 2024. Democrats would then have a new candidate with at least as good a shot at holding the seat as they would have had with Sinema. But that’s not how things tend to work in practice. A primary for an incumbent is a destabilizing and sometimes traumatic process for a party coalition. It’s hard not to end up with a fractured coalition after the process is over. If it’s a blue state that’s not a huge problem. But Arizona is not a blue state. So there’s a very good chance, even with a new candidate who is in the abstract a better electoral fit, you go on to lose the race. And the truth is that Democrats just don’t have seats to spare.
As important as it is in my mind to see her political career come to an end, the better path is probably to find some way to add to Democratic numbers so that her vote is less critical.