What does Kyrsten Sinema want? Nobody knows; she won’t say. The Arizona senator is known for living out loud in plenty of other ways—she favors patterned dresses, gaudy accessories, and profane jewelry (literally); her identity is bound up in attention-seeking hobbies (fancy wine, triathlons). But when it comes to her actual job, which is being a United States senator, she says next to nothing—most notably about her decision to hold up the progress of two important bills that constitute the Biden agenda. No one really seems to understand why. She has raised no specific objections over a proposed $3.5 trillion budget that has the support of the president. She has pilloried House Democratic leadership for not passing a related $1 trillion infrastructure bill, writing that failing to pass that bill “is inexcusable, and deeply disappointing for communities across our country,” without noting that her refusal to negotiate on the budget was a key reason why progress wasn’t being made on that front.
Compare her, if you like, to Joe Manchin, the Democratic Party’s other well-known stick in the mud. We know a great deal more about what Manchin wants—he, unlike the hermetic Sinema, talks to the press and to his constituents. Manchin isn’t comfortable with the $3.5 trillion figure and wants there to be more focus on debt reduction. He, moreover, has provided a figure he is comfortable with—$1.5 trillion—which is clearly the starting point of a negotiation that should conceivably end somewhere in the middle. Many of Manchin’s objections are silly and self-defeating—this is very much a time when it makes sense politically for the Democrats to go big, and they may not have another chance to for more than a decade. But at the very least, we have some idea about where he stands and why.
Sinema seems to relish playing the Pynchon-esque recluse to everyone but her donors. President Joe Biden has attempted to engage directly with her, seemingly to no avail. She has treated a bathroom confrontation with her constituents as a moral outrage, and yet it’s hard to blame them, considering their senator has offered so little about what she is up to and why. Those who want these answers have little choice but to seek her out in unconventional spaces.
Her approach to lawmaking seems to be built intentionally as some sort of avant-garde performance in frustration. One explanation is that Sinema is engaging in a kind of political kabuki, in an attempt to engineer some outcome, known only to her, that she thinks will help her politically. (Never mind that Sinema is currently underwater with Arizona voters, suggesting that this strategy may not be working.) Another is that she is working hand-in-hand with moneyed masters who oppose the Biden agenda and want to tank it—perhaps in the hopes that their money will save her political skin or provide her with a lush landing place if voters opt to eject her from office. It is, finally, also possible that she actually finds no budget acceptable and is merely biding her time, cosplaying as some perverse version of John McCain, hoping to sink the whole kit and caboodle. (Never mind that Sinema already did this over the $15 minimum wage and that it did nothing for her politically.)
This is also a very foolish strategy. Sinema may be trying, as Manchin does from time to time, to gin up anger on the Democratic left flank so she can make the case to independents and conservative Democrats that she is not like all the other socialists in the House. But her refusal to communicate doesn’t offer these theoretical voters any argument to consider or guide star to follow, which diminishes the effectiveness of this stratagem. There are no principles here, only petulance; all Sinema can say, if she does end up sinking or shrinking Biden’s agenda, is that she may have played a role in it.
In this way, she’s more akin to Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener—albeit a Bartleby cozy with corporate interests rather than critical of them. Asked to do something, anything, all she can say is, “I prefer not to.” If, that is, she says anything at all.
One of the consequences of Sinema’s opaque “stand” against the budget is that it has led many to try to retcon a rationale for it. Some have read an attempt to win over Arizona moderates in her crusade—or a play to the state’s reputation for producing “maverick” politicians. But Sinema herself has hardly made a play for the center; if she was, you could easily see her allying herself with Manchin’s concerns about the deficit. This hasn’t prevented Sinema from being portrayed as as some dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist.
But is she? Ideologically, there are many Democratic senators who could rightfully and fairly claim that descriptor: Virginia’s Mark Warner and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen are two. Colorado’s Michael Bennet ran one of the most interesting Democratic presidential campaigns, in terms of policy, operating from the center. Sinema, by contrast, has not offered anything daring or interesting beyond the suspicion that she believes in nothing.
But the widely held notion that Sinema (and, for that matter, Manchin) are standout exemplars of moderation is especially strange given just how few progressive senators there actually are. Instead, what you see is a clarifying look into how much of the press catalogs politicians. Sinema and Manchins are “centrists” not because they occupy the ideological center of American politics but because they are blocking initiatives favored by the American left. It hardly matters that these initiatives are also favored by the most famous moderate in American politics—Joe Biden. They get to be centrists because the media seems to believe that the end result of their obstruction—the watering down of the Biden budget—is de facto sensible. (This belief shines very clearly in a recent article in The New York Times, in which Biden’s decision to keep faith with the progressives that have stuck by him is characterized as the president sabotaging his own agenda.)
These distinctions matter. Sinema gets permission to hide from the press and abjure her constituents, in part, because she has been given the centrist-moderate stamp of approval. She doesn’t answer basic questions about where she stands on the most pivotal issue in Democratic politics right now, in part because the press has bequeathed her with a moniker that immunizes her from scrutiny and accountability. Once deemed a sensible pragmatist, all questions about her motivations are moot in the eyes of the political press. And yet, her self-same refusal to engage puts appreciable limits on how she might exploit these unearned advantages and benefit from them politically. If this is all some piece of surrealist performance art designed to help her win reelection, she’s failing at that, too.