When we let go of our attachment to specific outcomes and instead focus on our shared values, we can think creatively about solutions to the many problems we face today. Articulating our interests, rather than our positions, creates the space for each of us to consider new alternatives, new options, and new ways to reach our collective goal.
—Kyrsten Sinema, Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win—and Last, 2009
The arc of Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s career, the official story goes, is from left-wing agitator to avatar of compromise. But anybody following the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill, on which she is apparently the last stumbling block, after Joe Manchin indicated Thursday he may be ready to back a bill, can tell you that isn’t really true.
In 2000, Sinema couldn’t stomach Al Gore, so she supported Ralph Nader instead. As a peace activist in Phoenix, Tim Murphy reported in Mother Jones, she proposed reviving the 1960s protest slogan, “Bombing for Peace Is Like Fucking for Virginity,” and when she ran for Phoenix city council, she accepted almost no political donations because she said they were “bribery.” As late as 2011, Sinema tweeted, “Asking big corporations & the rich to pay their fair share is common sense not class warfare.”
Her transformation came about after she entered the Arizona state legislature, in 2005. Arizona’s own Barry Goldwater had lost the 1964 presidential election by declaiming that extremism in defense of liberty was no vice and moderation in pursuit of justice was no virtue. Sinema began her legislative career believing much the same thing, only from the left. It got her nowhere. So she gave up mau-mauing and took a new approach that she describes in Unite and Conquer.
My impetus for cracking Sinema’s manifesto is not only her stubborn opposition to the reconciliation bill but also her brazen monetization of that opposition this week at a fundraiser hosted by assorted Republican-leaning lobby groups. Are any fundraising taboos left in Washington? In 1987, then–Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen had to apologize profusely (“I really blew it”) when word leaked out that he was planning to charge lobbyists $10,000 to have breakfast with him once a month. That episode seems quaint today. When word of Sinema’s fundraiser amid her tense discussions with President Joe Biden and others about corporate and personal taxes leaked to TheNew York Times, Sinema said not a word and went ahead with it. It was a one-day story.
Unite and Conquer is an argument for working in bipartisan fashion. That’s a political necessity for a Democrat in Arizona state politics but a near-impossibility in Congress even a dozen years ago, when the book was published. Yield to the temptation to play “bomb thrower,” Sinema warns, and you won’t “participate in bipartisan meetings to craft good legislation.” Left unsaid is that you can still lob a bomb now and then in the direction of your political teammates. Sinema’s been doing that regularly as a senator. Remember her histrionic thumbs-down on the minimum wage?
Sinema’s book idealizes President Barack Obama as the conciliator made famous when he said there was no liberal America or conservative America, just the United States of America. Not long after Unite and Conquer was published, though, Obama would alter his approach after spending a fruitless year trying to craft a bipartisan health care bill modeled on a 1989 paper by the Heritage Foundation’s Stuart Butler and a Massachusetts state plan crafted by then-Governor Mitt Romney. Heritage and Romney disavowed any similarities—Romney wouldn’t acknowledge them until after he lost to Obama in 2012—and not a single Republican voted for the plan when it passed Congress in 2010. Then, to add insult to injury, Republicans savaged Obama for passing so important a bill without their input.
Nobody any longer pretends that bipartisanship is possible on major bills in Congress today, except during emergencies like Covid-19; the infrastructure bill is perhaps another exception. But about the reconciliation bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell never even pretended he’d like to change this or that provision. Why bother? Instead, he said: “We are going to make it hard for them.” To the extent Sinema aligns herself with McConnell on this bill, her bipartisanship amounts to obstructionism.
Even Sinema had to acknowledge, when she wrote her book, that Washington’s “we all become friends again at cocktail hour” ethos was vanishing fast. Consequently, Unite and Conquer ended up being more about how to compromise than specifically about how to negotiate with someone from another political party. The word compromise appears twice as much in Sinema’s book as the word bipartisan, and the context isn’t always political.
Parts of Unite and Conquer read less like a political manual and more like a self-help book. Sinema writes about “letting go of the bear and picking up the Buddha.” This entails, she explains, abandoning the “fight-or-flight reflex” our humanoid ancestors relied on and striving instead to be “calm, cool and collected” and “super centered” (like the Dalai Lama, I guess, or maybe Gwyneth Paltrow). Sinema also mentions enso, the Japanese word for “circle,” which signifies “the perfect meditative state, and enlightenment.” Om.
But the ideal practitioner of Sinematic centeredness resembles Sinema not at all. Sinema’s line is that she used to be stubborn and self-righteous—when she was a kid, her dad told her to stop starting sentences with “but”—and eventually she ascended to a higher plane of serenity and enlightenment. It would be truer to say Sinema learned to govern her impulses just enough to climb the greasy pole from the Arizona House to the Arizona Senate to the House of Representatives to the Senate. She’s good at the climbing part but still pretty bad at the Buddhist part.
Sinema comes close to admitting this in the part of her book where she discusses the importance of listening. “I’m not very good at this,” the senior senator from Arizona confesses.
I get so wrapped up in the issue under discussion that I desperately want to insert my two cents—or more often, my two hundred cents. In the moment of discussion, I convince myself that if I can just state my case and my facts clearly, the other person can’t fail to agree with me.… Later, I may kick myself for jumping from listening to debating, but by then it’s too late.
Remember that, Arizona constituents, next time you have something you want to tell her.
In sum, Krysten Sinema doesn’t seem very much like a leftist who learned to listen to the conservative side. She seems more like a narcissist who learned to channel her rigidity in a more profitable direction. When you consider this view, certain continuities sharpen between Sinema the leftist and Sinema the conservative stick-in-the-mud.
To borrow again from Barry Goldwater, maybe Sinema didn’t give up extremism and reconcile herself to moderation so much as she gave up virtue and reconciled herself to vice. Is it common sense to make corporations pay more in taxes? Then make them pay up in exchange for not hiking their taxes. Are campaign contributions bribery? Then, hell, why not open the cash window during negotiations over reconciliation?
Does Sinema herself believe her book’s message that politicians need to avoid extremism? That’s hard to know. But she sure isn’t acting like it now.