The curious case of Senator Kyrsten Sinema

The Arizona Senator declares her independence from the Democrat Party, claiming partisanship in Washington, DC has run amuck, and yet she expects nothing to change after her announcement.  Progressives may have other plans after this curiously inconsequential development.

Last week, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema rocked the political world by announcing she was leaving the Democrat Party and becoming an independent.  She explained her reasoning in an op-ed for Arizona Central, writing “There’s a disconnect between what everyday Americans want and deserve from our politics, and what political parties are offering.”  In her view, Arizonans and Americans expect our leaders to “set aside political games, work together, make progress and then get out of the way so we can build better lives for ourselves and our families,” but they are “increasingly left behind by national parties’ rigid partisanship, which has hardened in recent years. Pressures in both parties pull leaders to the edges, allowing the loudest, most extreme voices to determine their respective parties’ priorities and expecting the rest of us to fall in line.”  The result is that “compromise is seen as a rarely acceptable last resort, rather than the best way to achieve lasting progress. Payback against the opposition party has replaced thoughtful legislating.”  Perhaps needless to say, Senator Sinema believes she has fought against these trends and delivered on her promises to Arizona.  “I promised I would never bend to party pressure, and I would stay focused on solving problems and getting things done for everyday Arizonans.  My approach is rare in Washington and has upset partisans in both parties.   It is also an approach that has delivered lasting results for Arizona.”   Regardless, she feels “these kinds of lasting legislative successes will become rarer” and she is joining “the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington. I registered as an Arizona independent. ”

Perhaps, “rocked the political world” is too strong a phrase.  Senator Sinema also said that she expects nothing to change in an interview around the time of her major announcement.  “I don’t anticipate that anything will change about the Senate structure,” she told Politico, adding that the next steps are “a question for [Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer … I intend to show up to work, do the same work that I always do. I just intend to show up to work as an independent.”  She also noted that she intends to keep her committee assignments, meaning she will continue caucusing with the Democrats and the balance of power in the Senate would still favor the Democrat party by 51-49.  Interestingly, Senator Sinema would not be the first Democrat in the Senate to take this path.  Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Maine Senator Angus King are both technically independents who caucus with the Democrats, giving the actual Democrat Party a total of 48 Senators.  Given that Senator Sinema currently votes the position favored by President Joe Biden about 93% of the time, the announcement is not likely to result in major changes to the output of the Senate or Washington, DC in general.  This has led many to conclude that the maneuver was self-serving, purely for political purposes as the 2024 campaign is officially underway.  The thinking here is simple:  The approximately 7% of the time Senator Sinema bucks her party, mainly on taxes and spending, was sure to result in a primary challenge from the progressive left anyway.  This is a challenge she might have lost, and therefore it’s better to attempt to circumvent the issue entirely by branding herself as a political independent and running outside the party structure.  “Today, Kyrsten Sinema told us what we already knew for years: that she is not a Democrat and simply out for herself,” explained Alejandra Gomez, executive director of Latino community organizing group Living United for Change in Arizona.

In that regard, her switch in party affiliation is not nothing for the Democrat’s chances of maintaining their advantage in the Senate in 2024.  Many believe this makes the path to continued power more difficult.  CNN reported that “Democrats were sidestepping the sensitive question and handling the politically fraught situation delicately, knowing that a misstep could backfire and have serious ramifications for their party.”  They quoted Senate Majority Whip, Dick Durbin.  “When they call me for advice, I’ll give it in confidence,” he said.  “I plan to stay out of Arizona politics.”  The fear of stepping into a political briar patch is real, “If Sinema runs for a second term but party leaders put their muscle behind a Democratic candidate instead, the electorate could splinter in the purple state and help Republicans win back a critical seat. Plus, backing a Democrat in the race could risk alienating Sinema whose decision to continue to align with her former party on her committee assignments essentially solidifies their 51-49 majority.”  CNN’s data analyst, Harry Enten wrote a piece detailing how that “simple math hides a more clouded picture for Democrats and for Sinema herself. Sinema’s interests are no longer necessarily the Democrats’ best interests in the next Congress, and the 2024 Senate map became even more complicated for Democrats with Sinema’s decision.”  He believes “she no longer has to worry about winning a Democratic primary. Sinema has to worry about building a coalition of Democrats, independents and Republicans. That is far more difficult to do if you’re seen as too liberal.”  Ultimately, “The vast majority, 23 of the 34, senators up for reelection in 2024 caucus with the Democrats. An abnormally large number (7) represent states Republican Donald Trump won at least once. This includes Arizona.  With Sinema’s break from the Democratic party, the road is, if nothing else, curvier for Democrats.”

For their part, progressives have responded to this news with their usual combination of good riddance and we never liked her anyway.  Drew Shaneman, writing for NJ.com, declared that “Nobody likes Kyrsten Sinema more than Kyrsten Sinema.”  As he sees it, “Apparently, Kyrsten Sinema wasn’t getting the kind of attention she thinks she deserves, at home or in Washington, so she switched party affiliation from Democrat to Independent. Keeping yourself in the news every 72 hours sounds exhausting.”  The Atlantic chose to focus on Senator Sinema’s former volunteers, who say “She made an idiot out of me,” noting that they “were all proud to have volunteered to get Sinema elected, proud of the doors they’d knocked and calls they’d made, proud to have had her glossy purple-and-yellow literature scattered in their home or on the floor of their car. But their pride had curdled long before Sinema announced she was leaving the Democratic Party last Friday.”  They conclude that changing parties is “her prerogative. But it’s also the prerogative of people who lent Sinema their time and reputation to now turn against her. In bitter irony, the volunteers who cut their teeth working to get her elected may be among those working the hardest to defeat her.”  The New Yorker resorted to misogynist tropes, claiming Senator Sinema could not be motivated by any “principled grievance,” but was “basically, a change in mood,” before questioning, “beneath the basic Sinema-ness of her exit—the faintly lunar atmosphere of self-actualization combined with spry political opportunism—there is a political mystery here. Why is she the only one?”

The progressive movement, apparently, is not ready to do any analysis or, dare I say, soul searching after the second high profile defection this year as former Congresswoman and Presidential Candidate Tulsi Gabbard also announced her departure from the party a few months ago.  In their view, people cannot be leaving the Democrat Party because progressives have pushed it too far to the left, spending too much money and pushing too many radical social policies like anti-American Critical Race Theory or an LGBTQ+ agenda that requires everyone to believe a man can actually turn into a woman and vice versa.  Nor could it be the progressive willingness to harass those who are their natural political allies, if not clones of all their positions, however extreme.  If you recall, the progressive attacks on Senator Sinema earlier this year were so insane a group of protestors actually followed her into the bathroom and Democrat Joe Biden refused to condemn the intrusive tactic.  Is it any wonder she left the Democrat party if only in name?  If reporting by The Daily Beast is any indication, progressives do not plan on letting her leave quietly either.  Rather than accept an independent that supports Democrat policies the great majority of the time and let Kyrsten Sinema be who she wants to be, they are going to risk a three way race in 2024 that could potentially hand victory to the Republicans by splitting liberal leaning votes.  Democrats, you see “are ready to call [her] bluff” according to The Daily Beast.  “Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who had been laying the groundwork to challenge Sinema even before her party change, continued to make moves in the days following her announcement, teasing a possible bid in fundraising emails and reportedly contracting with strategy firms.  Asked by reporters in the Capitol on Monday night if his running would ensure a GOP win, Gallego said ‘quite the opposite… Like, by her running, it guarantees a Democrat will win.’”  Representative Gallego said this even as other Arizona Democrats are claiming, “Her party switch is an electoral hand grenade and she just pulled the pin.”  “Sinema made a shrewd move,” the Arizona Democratic operative continued. “If Gallego runs as a Democrat, it splits the vote, and they both lose to the Republican.”

Sadly, this tendency also seems to have taken hold in the Republican party as well, only it is the establishment rebuffing candidates they perceive as too far too the right or too close to former President Donald Trump, however you choose to describe it.  In both cases, neither group, the progressive left, or the globalist right, is willing to ask themselves why people, whether it be an individual Senator or primary voters, aren’t simply doing whatever they say without question.  The old expression that a half-a-loaf is better than none no longer appears to apply.  I do not write this as a person who has a reflexive dislike of partisanship.  The two party system generally works because it reflects both political poles, covering a broad range of positions, and I believe there is value in proposing and debating opposing ideas.  The best end result generally comes when starting from two extremes. There is a danger, however, when a party’s leadership or a significant percentage of its constituents become so insular they refuse to accept any criticism, blaming challenges on everyone but themselves.  In a highly polarized era, this tendency is made even more dangerous because it’s already exceedingly difficult to reach any kind of reasonable compromise or consensus on any given issue.  Rather than debating the facts and doing the hard work of putting together policies with broad support, the parties resort to procedural tricks and battles over the rules of the game. We will see this on full display when the Republicans officially take over the House of Representatives next month.

The result is an ongoing stalemate that simply cannot last forever. Senator Sinema is a curious case because she seems to understand that, and yet her announcement doesn’t do anything to change it.

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