(Image: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore, Illustrations by Will Allen)
When she’s not busy listing her items of clothing on Facebook marketplace or getting her staff to buy her groceries, Arizona’s senior senator is busy making enemies of everyone. For the past two years Kyrsten Sinema has endlessly frustrated Biden’s aspirations to transform America – becoming her party’s true limiting factor in the Senate. She has killed numerous policies she’s on record supporting and limited others for no good reason. All these legislative antics have played out in the shadow of Sinema’s deafening silence, as a result few seem to know the senator or the grand ideology that guides her.
Entering the 118th Congress the task of decoding Kyrsten Sinema and her set of beliefs hasn’t gotten any easier. She’s severed ties with her former party and is staking what little political capital she thinks she has left on the enigmatic title of political independent. Somewhat ironically, to understand Sinema's and her idiosyncratic politics you need to look at Sinema herself and the impossible position she’s place herself in.
When Biden assumed the Presidency, he did so with the governing trifecta and the power to pass long dreamed of Democratic policy goals. One person critical in facilitating this trifecta was Kyrsten Sinema, a first term Democrat from Arizona elected in 2018. Without her the Biden Presidency would never have passed items like the child tax credit (which cut child poverty in half) or confirmed the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Paradoxically, Sinema’s presence was also the undoing of vast swathes of a once bold Democratic agenda. She spent two years wreaking havoc on the very issues she’d signed up to support and her constituents sent her to Congress to realise.
Sinema ended up tanking vast swathes of the Biden Presidency. For two years the equally divided Senate which required her vote to pass any legislation handed Sinema such immense power, and she used it. (Image: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore, Illustrations by Will Allen)
Her perchance for saying ‘no’ to her own party can be traced back to an intra-party fight over raising the minimum wage in the first reconciliation package. Sinema, of course, wasn’t the only Democrat who voted to kill the minimum wage hike, multiple centrist Democrats stuck knives into the provision, yet none were performed with relish of Sinema’s tone-deaf theatrics. Prior to giving what would become an infamous thumbs-down – to a policy she had long been on record supporting – Sinema served cake on the Senate floor. The let-them-eat-cake moment was quickly seized upon by critics, less so were her motives for opposing the raise. The Senator, who grew up in poverty, stated she only said no because she was a stickler for the Senate’s arcane procedural rules.
As the Biden Presidency rolled on Sinema’s obstruction only became more painful to her party’s legislative dreams. When Biden unveiled his ill-fated social spending program ‘Build Back Better’, Joe Manchin drew the ire of the Democratic caucus for bringing down the landmark bill in spectacular public fashion. Yet, Sinema played an equally important role tearing apart the proposed legislation – she just did so privately, refusing to negotiate in public. When Manchin finally agreed to move forward with the remains of 'Build Back Better', in what would become the Inflation Reduction Act, Sinema remained unmoved she was still a ‘no’.
To quash her opposition Democrats had to watch as she stifled the popular prescription drug price cap plan in the Inflation Reduction Act. Even Joe Manchin, arch conservative in the Democratic caucus, was irked calling out “a senator from Arizona who basically didn’t let us go as far as we needed to go with our negotiations and made us wait two years.”
Sinema didn’t stop there, she also went to the mat to strip out an end to the gratuitous carried-interest loophole – a provision which lets the richest Americans pay virtually no tax on their Wall St. riches. To this day this request remains her most puzzling; few (if any) in congress would go to the hilt to defend this loophole, but Sinema did – placing the landmark bill and her political future at risk, for no apparent end. Why she chose to protect private-equity lobbyists while downgrading Americans’ access to affordable prescription drugs remains elusive. Coincidentally, as she insisted on these tweaks her campaign check book was being lined by the pharmaceutical industry and lobbyists like Dan Mahoney were flattering her in state op-eds.
Sinema is in corporate America's good books. Her campaign has drawn huge donations from lobbyists and corporations that admire her use of the word 'no'. Yet, money likely isn't her guiding principle, she could rake in far more money pleasing the small-dollar donors of the Democratic Party by supporting Biden's legislation - which makes her actions all the more confusing. (Image: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore, Illustrations by Will Allen)
As a result of this endless obstruction, Arizona’s senator has become what can only be described as a lightning rod for Democratic dissatisfaction. A fact which is only compounded by the fact Sinema is not a forthcoming politician (at all), refusing to entertain questions regarding why she engages in the legislative battles she does. She is renowned for airing constituents, refusing meetings, ghosting emails, and even cutting all contact with the very progressive groups who aided her narrow victory in 2018.
Disgruntled by her silence some have sought answers. In 2021 a group of students from Arizona tried to understand their senator’s opposition to the ‘Build Back Better’ legislation her obstruction would eventually help kill. Yet rather than give a straight answer to the very people who knocked on doors for her, Sinema locked herself in a bathroom. Such an act would have undoubtedly drawn the ire of a young Kyrsten Sinema who spent her time calling out self-obsessed politicians only interested in obtaining power.
Sinema is a famously private person. A fact which has only made her actions more bemusing as America tried to guess the motives behind her obstruction. (Image: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore, Illustrations by Will Allen)
This brings us to the enigma of Sinema today. Sinema is not only hated by the progressive and Democratic circles she once pinned her political ideology to. Arizonians’ Democrat, Republican and Independent alike have a strong distaste for their senior senator. Polling gives tell-tale insight to Sinema’s standing in her state – among those she needed to win in a Democratic primary she received a net unfavourable rating of -57 percentage points (by contrast Democrat Mark Kelly has a +68 favourable rating from the same pool of voters). In short, Sinema is underwater with every kind of voter. Where she draws her biggest support from is Republican voters, a laughable fact considering her former self lambasted Joe Lieberman for seeking their support – “He seems to want to get Republicans voting for him—what kind of strategy is that?”.
Her new status as an independent strikes a blow to what was once inevitable: the imminent unseating at the hands of her own party. Sinema who has an eye on re-election knows 2024 brings a brutal slate of Senate elections for the Democratic party, one only made impossibly harder by her move. If she runs, Democrats can either attempt to unseat her in a high stakes three way race with potentially disastrous consequences or they can swallow a poison pill and endorse her candidacy.
Sinema will be remembered for her endless use of the word ‘no’, but for what reason? Her enigmatic obstruction burned all bridges with the very electoral base and party that allowed her accent into elected office. Sinema boxed in by her own actions has only one option, to go to war with her former party and hope she can survive the battle. Independence is a political power move, one which reveals what might be her true guiding principle – Sinema herself.