Members Only | December 14, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Kyrsten Sinema doesn’t get the credit she deserves

Yeah, she’s annoying. That’s democratic politics for you


Share this article

Politics is complex and made more complex by the desire for it to be simple. The political discourse around US Senator Kyrsten Sinema is no exception. She drives Democrats crazy! They make her out to be a ghoul. She isn’t, though. That makes the political discourse complex.

Democratic normies have come to believe that Sinema, in cahoots with US Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have time and again “hijacked” the president’s legislative agenda, “forcing major concessions that include changes and cuts to tax, health and climate legislation,” according to Arizona Republic editorial writer Elvia Diaz.

This is taken as obviously true. 

This is neither obvious nor true.

Hijacked? Mmm
First, because Joe Biden and the Democrats have accomplished the greatest two years in congressional history since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of 1964-1966. The electorate rewarded them by sending every incumbent back to the Senate, the first time that’s occurred since 1934. The House Democrats lost by a mere nine seats. 

For reasons thus far unexplained, Democratic normies have accepted as true a transparent paradox – that concessions are the same as a hijacking. You can say the Democrats could have done more had Sinema been less obtuse and loathsome. You can’t say, however, that she and Joe Manchin hijacked anything. They did the opposite.

None of this was possible without Sinema’s vote. There’s lots – lots! – to criticize about her, but let’s be clear about why. It’s not because Sinema has “hijacked” the president’s legislative agenda. It’s not because she ruined things after a hard-fought Georgia run-off. It’s not because she’s a “hypocrite” and “beholden to her donors.”

Second, because concessions do not constitute a hijacking. Indeed, concessions are the beating heart of democratic politics, as in democratic politics would be impossible without concessions.

But her obstruction is maddening! Her positions are stupid!

Too true, but Arizona is a purple state. If bashing Democrats attracts indie and Republican voters, that might be a trade-off we can live with. It works for Joe Manchin. Perhaps it will work for Sinema.

For reasons thus far unexplained, Democratic normies have accepted as true a transparent paradox – that concessions are the same as a hijacking. You can say the Democrats could have done more had Sinema been less obtuse and loathsome. You can’t say, however, that she and Joe Manchin hijacked anything. They did the opposite.

Why then do her critics insist otherwise? 

Could be betrayal
I think the reason is hidden beneath the reaction to Sinema’s recent decision to “switch” from the Democratic Party. Like Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, Sinema will now be an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Her vote can be counted among the center-left. They have 51, the Republicans 49.

That reason? 

The appearance of betrayal.

Now, actual betrayal is meaningful when the Democrats lose something on account of one of their own betraying them. 

But they have not lost something. They have accomplished more in two years under Biden than any Congress has since the early 1960s. If they lost something, it’s something they hoped for, but didn’t get.

Actual betrayal is meaningful when the Democrats are blocked from doing something on account of one of their own betraying them.

But Senate Democrats are not blocked from doing something. (With the addition of Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman, they can do more; the House, meanwhile, will be in Republican hands next year.) As I said, Sinema will caucus with the Democrats. There is no significant difference between Sinema pre-switch and Sinema post-switch.

Some say that’s the problem! If that’s “the problem,” there is no problem. Some things she’ll vote for. Others, she won’t. But her making things harder is scarcely worth mentioning while engaged in democratic politics. Democratic politics is always already hard.

Why then do her critics insist otherwise? 

She paid the party back
I think because they did not get what they had hoped for after Joe Biden mopped the floor with Donald Trump. They wanted X. They got Y. They said Y wasn’t enough. It’s Sinema’s fault. She betrayed us. 

Critics seem to be saying, look at all that the Democratic Party has done for Sinema and yet she pays the party back by “creating all sorts of drama and attention-grabbing stunts with her thumbs-down vote on minimum wage and posting social media pictures with messages telling constituents to f— off,” the Arizona Republic’s Elvia Diaz said.

I might agree had Sinema stopped Biden and the Democrats from passing historic measures on infrastructure, job creation, child poverty, marijuana sentencing, modest gun control, same-sex marriage, lower prescription drug costs and climate change. 

But she was key to it all. 

From one angle, sure. She bucked the party.

From another, she paid the party back and then some.

Why then do her critics insist otherwise? 

Practicing democratic politics
We are in a moment in political history in which the Democrats can win by embracing plain democratic values. They can win, because the Republicans are on a bender. Compared to someone on a bender, anyone can look righteous. That’s where the Democrats are now.

But let’s not confuse democratic values with democratic politics. They overlap. (They may overlap completely.) But they are not the same. Say what you want about Sinema but she hasn’t forgotten that. 

Maybe that’s what her critics dislike most. They have gotten it into their heads that democratic values are the same as democratic politics and therefore recoil when someone like Kyrsten Sinema sets a path for herself similar to John McCain’s, with support from Democrats as well as a smattering of Republicans and indies.

Like McCain, Sinema decries partisan politics even as she acts like an arch-partisan. She criticizes political calculations while politically calculating her every move. She portrays herself as ditching the Democrats when she’s not ditching the Democrats. McCain duped everyone into thinking he was a maverick. Perhaps, Sinema will, too.

This is not to say she will succeed. I think Greg Sargent is right to say her switch is a big gamble for her, and for the Democratic Party – it could lose a seat to a Republican candidate who exploits the division between Sinema and whoever the Arizona Democrats decide to run. 

In any case, democratic politics is the means by which to save Arizona. Yet critics complain about her democratic politics. 

Diaz, quoting Sinema, said her “breaking away ‘from the broken partisan system in Washington’ is just another one of her political moves.” Diaz added: “Make no mistake, though, ditching the Democratic Party has nothing to do with ugly partisan games but everything to do with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s opportunism.”

Why yes! Yes it is! 

Democratic normies have it in their heads that democratic politics is bad. Fact is, democratic politics is how anything good gets done.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Jake Gerstein on December 14, 2022 at 11:34 am

    I’m going to tell you why I disagree. Her moves are those of a person who is far more concerned about their own political future than the wellbeing of their constituents. Over and over again I asked myself, “who the F is advising her???”

    Her moves only makes sense in the scope of HER future, the people who actually put her on that office were tearing their hair out over her coreless and overtly “opportunistic” behavior. When she finally started smelling the smoke, it was way too late for her to remain a Democrat.

    She, for sure, would’ve lost her next primary by a massive margin, so what does she do? She becomes and Independent to threaten the loss of the seat altogether. That’s so Trumpian it’s just ugly as hell. Instead of allowing herself to be judged by her constituents for her actions, she threatens the entire political party to save herself.

    That’s EXACTLY what she’s doing, saving herself. It’s 110% about her. She couldn’t care less about Arizona, the Democrats or America. In my eyes, it’s time to own the fact that we elected a terrible and selfish candidate to the Senate in Arizona.

  2. Bennett Graff on December 14, 2022 at 11:43 am

    I rarely disagree with your assessments, John, but this one I shall. The guiding principle here is that Sinema’s show of independence (emphasis on “show”) is just democratic politics.

    But has Sinema also betrayed the Democratic party? Yes, of course she has. But not because of ostentatious–and weirdly pointless–showboating of a McCain-ian maverickness that Mark Kelly kicked to curb and still won on. Sinema is simply no Joe Manchin. Both may be attention seekers, but his difficulties are quite real in deep red West Virginia. Hers are not.

    So her “independence” while a member of Democratic party may bespeak “democratic politics.” But her leaving the party, which creates a potential 3-way race that ultimately seeks to blackmail the Democrats into stepping aside so she can presumably run against the Republican candidate, while perfectly good “blood sport” democratic politics, is nonetheless betrayal.

    Her “independence” ultimately drew a primary challenge that never had to happen. Personally, I think she read the wrong tea leaves: she thought Arizona more purple than it proved to be, and now she’s stuck with the consequences of her poor triangulation–and hence her departure from the Democratic Party. “Democratic politics”? Sure. But party betrayal of hard-working loyal Democrats? Absolutely.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.