We are back in this guessing game on what is up with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Mostly it doesn’t matter. She has the vote and Democrats need that vote. And that’s really 90% of the story and quite likely 100%. I’ll just revisit what I’ve learned trying to get to the bottom of this mystery myself.
One thing I hear again and again is that Sinema is doing some version of a mafia bust-out, paying off lobbyists in every way she can think of and the pay off is a cushy perch on K Street as a lobbyist herself. This version of the story presents a wonderful morality tale about Washington. But I’m pretty certain it’s not true. It would all be much easier to understand. But again I’m pretty certain this is not true.
And frankly it wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Over the last twenty years, starting as a Green Party staffer, Sinema has methodologically worked her way up through the ranks of elected office. From a failed bid for city council, to state house, to state Senate, to rep and finally to senator. One of the great mysteries about Sinema is that she frequently seems entirely unable to assess the politics of a situation and yet that judgement of her political skills is very hard to square with the record I’ve just described. That record is one of steady political evolution – from Green to progressive Democrat to “centrist” Democrat – and a consistent record of climbing the ladder to the very pinnacle of American electoral politics. You just don’t work that hard and that successfully to climb the ladder of political power to flame out after one Senate term to get a job as a lobbyist. The money isn’t that good. And it’s not like other senators don’t find ways to get plenty well off while remaining in the Senate.
Lots of people who’ve crossed paths with her over the last two decades are sure she sees herself as a future president. That seems completely bonkers today. But … state house, state Senate, House, Senate. Why shouldn’t she see herself as a future president?
But there are clues. Having talked to many former colleagues and friends and people involved in her campaigns there are numerous stories of what we might call interpersonal clumsiness, jarring moments of metaphorically or sometimes very literally not reading the room. There are lots of stories of friendships or political alliances that just ended abruptly without terribly clear reasons. Over the last year many of her former supporters and donors have reacted aghast at her political transformation and reached out to ask what was up. In most cases she seems simply to have shut these people out. Just no response. Given the fever pitch at which things are currently running I probably wouldn’t want to take those calls either. But I don’t mean now. I mean earlier this year when things hadn’t gotten so intense.
A small part of the story is that we need to remember that Sinema started out as a Green Party operative. She was strident and flamboyant in her original incarnation as a Democrat. So if she’s going to be viable as a statewide candidate in an only barely purple state like Arizona she’s got a lot of ground to make up. Mark Kelly is a former astronaut with a powerful personal story. He can be a middle of the road Dem and that can work. She needs to do a lot more to make herself palatable to conservative leaning independents. Martha McSally’s campaign tried to use all the old stuff against Sinema and it wasn’t enough to beat her. But clearly the last six months has been way past anything that can be seen as a plausible response to shoring up those bona fides.
Another clue about Sinema is that her big asks or demands aren’t even the ones that you might expect from someone trying to pursue the path she’s on. Making absolute demands about the carried interest loophole or Medicare drug price negotiations are either things that no civilian has ever heard of before or opposing things that are insanely popular. These aren’t poll-tested. These are wishlists you come up with if you’re texting with your lobbyist friends while you’re talking to the President.
So what is it? The key parts to the equation seem to be that Sinema has always been someone who keeps a very tight circle around her. She doesn’t really talk to a lot of people. It’s not necessarily the same thing. But it must be related that she rarely talks to the press. Half of congressional reporting is reporters chasing around and button-holing senators walking through the capitol and asking questions. She virtually never takes questions. These aren’t necessarily bad qualities. A lot of us instinctively think or assume that the guys who are the big talkers and glad handers are phonies. But it speaks to a kind of person who keeps her own counsel and doesn’t get or have interest in a lot of outside input. Again, not always bad qualities.
At some point or another she got the idea that her ticket is being the next John McCain, the maverick, the independent who bucks her own party. She’s also an assiduous courter of lobbyists. But again, that hardly makes her a huge standout in the Senate. But those two things seem to fit together. You can look at her campaign materials, those sent by corporate PACs on her behalf, her mailings. They each come back again and again either implicitly or explicitly to the comparison with John McCain.
I think the story is that she got it in her head that this McCain 2.0 branding was her ticket to political success in Arizona, that the way you know you’re doing McCaining right is when you’re bucking and annoying members of your own party and getting the branding of what D.C. calls “maverickyness” and “independence.” That’s her plan and she’s sticking to her plan.
Now, it’s important to remember that something like that plan was absolutely the right move for her. It would be political suicide for her to be a senator in the mold of a Sherrod Brown or most Democratic senators from the Northeast or West Coast. She couldn’t be the kind of senator who is in line with the national Democratic party’s enthusiasms of the moment. She would need to make a big part of her brand independence, not just be a rubber stamp for national Democrats. The lucky thing for her is that Arizona Democrats would give her lots of room for maneuver. They hadn’t elected a new Democrat to the Senate since 1976.
The truth is that she took a pretty smart and politically sensible model and went about it in the most rigid, clumsy and inept way imaginable. There are lots of senators who manage to check those same boxes and yet manage to be with the rest of the party when it really matters. And the kicker is that I think she still thinks she’s right and it’s all going to work for her. Because … well, remember, she’s the new John McCain.
This is all, one might say, quite unfortunate. The real John McCain, whatever else you think of him, managed to vote with his party virtually all of the time, especially on the big things, the stuff that really counted. The iconic thumbs down on abolishing Obamacare was a major exception. And God bless him for it. But it was very much an exception. McCain also had a reserve of goodwill because of his personal legend – Navy scion, fighter pilot, POW, “maverick.” That gave him room for a fair degree of heterodoxy within the GOP. And in any case Arizona was and generally still is a pretty Republican state. So the only real challenge he was ever going to face was in a primary. And he was far too embedded in the state’s politics for that to succeed.
Sinema, to put it gently, has none of that.
The best explanation for all of this is that Sinema simply has too much arrogance and narcissism to realize that her gambit isn’t even working in terms of the crassest self-interest. And that’s unfortunate. Crooks are at least known commodities. They all have a price and you can try to meet it. Self-interest is a universal language. Stupid or functionally stupid because of arrogance or narcissism or just a seemingly deep inability to read the room is much harder to work with.
And that’s really where the Democrats are at with her.
Is she toast?
I’ve spoken to a number of Arizona Democrats who think or fear that she’s gotten so deep in with the lobbyist crowd in D.C. that she can just carpet-bomb the state with TV commercials at election time and that she doesn’t feel she needs them anymore. Everybody talks about her having basically zero presence in the state. No meetings. No outreach. Nothing. Others point out that to get primaried you have to have some plausible Democrat step forward and run against you. And it’s not totally clear who that is. Anyone who is a plausible candidate probably has to give up some current good gig to make the run and there are many reasons why the path through a contested primary against an incumbent to actually getting to the Senate is an arduous one.