Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
the national interest

Kyrsten Sinema’s Problems Are Only Beginning

No Democrat has hurt themselves worse this term.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Democratic Party’s year-and-a-half-long quest to pass a legacy domestic climate bill, after several near-death experiences, culminated in improbable triumph. Joe Manchin pulled a last-minute face turn and the party tamped down its infighting to bask, at least temporarily, in victory. It was a happy ending for everybody.

Except, perhaps, Kyrsten Sinema. The Arizona senator has come out of Biden’s first two years deeply exposed and vulnerable to a primary challenge when she runs for reelection in 2024. No other Democrat in national office has seen their career prospects hurt as badly the last two years as she has.

Democrats spent most of the Biden presidency so far agonizing over the apparently inscrutable desires of Joe Manchin. In the end, though, Sinema was exposed as the most important — or at least hardest to justify — limiting factor on their ambitions. Interestingly, Manchin himself did more than anybody to make that status clear.

Manchin’s breakthrough offer to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer was composed of policies the entire caucus had agreed on, with one exception: He proposed to narrow the tax break for carried interest, a special advantage Sinema had vowed to protect. This forced Sinema to demand the removal of that provision as her price for striking a deal. Sinema had tried to keep her support for the notorious provision quiet — the New York Times found earlier this month she has never uttered the phrase “carried interest” in a public legislative session. Manchin’s offer made her position public.

It’s possible Manchin included that provision just so he could give Sinema something to negotiate away. But the effect was to focus attention on her support for a deeply unpopular tax giveaway. How unpopular? Pro–Wall Street Democrats like Jamie Dimon and Steve Rattner — and even right-winger Donald Trump — have publicly criticized it.

Manchin likewise exposed Sinema’s alliance with the prescription-drug lobby. “We had 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,” he told constituents. Manchin quickly retracted his remark, but it remains correct. Sinema forced Democrats to scale back their plans to allow the government to negotiate prices on the drugs it purchases, cutting roughly in half the savings to consumers and taxpayers.

After the Associated Press reported that Sinema collected $1 million in donations from private equity, an Arizona corporate attorney and registered Republican Dan Mahoney leapt to her defense with an op-ed in an Arizona newspaper. “Much of the media would have us believe that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was bought off by the private equity (PE) industry and other Wall Street barons in the recent negotiations over the Inflation Reduction Act. Some portray the events as a quid pro quo in which money was funneled to her contemporaneous with negotiations, thereby securing her roadblock of the legislation until Democratic leadership capitulated to her demands,” he wrote. “The reality is, Sen. Sinema’s objection to tax increases has been well-known since at least early last summer.”

This is probably true. Sinema doesn’t need private-equity money to fund her campaign — she could raise more money from liberals if she supported the party more reliably. A more likely explanation would be that Sinema is just an extremely soft touch for the business lobby and instinctively agrees with any argument, however preposterous and nakedly self-serving, that is put in front of her as long as the person making it is wearing an expensive suit.

Mahoney’s op-ed proceeds to argue that Sinema was not only not bought off, but was wise and correct to preserve the carried-interest loophole. But the fact that she is being defended so strongly by “a partner at Snell & Wilmer LLP” who is “a registered Republican and routinely advises clients on matters related to corporate and private equity matters” tells you why Democrats probably wish somebody else was occupying her Senate seat.

What makes Sinema’s idiosyncratic support for the business lobby’s least popular and least defensible demands so galling is that she represents a state that isn’t especially Republican at all. Arizona is a purple state, but it has trended slightly bluer. Meanwhile there are Democrats representing states like Montana, Ohio, and, of course, West Virginia who don’t feel compelled to carry water for plutocrats.

Sinema may have an overarching desire to be a centrist, in the tradition of John McCain, and simply has terrible judgment about which issues to stake her independence on. The specific crisis she faces is that her generalized reputation for breaking ranks with the party has taken a highly concrete form that is deeply noxious not merely to the left wing but to almost the entire Democratic party. The question facing her future is less whether she can defeat a primary challenge than whether she will even try.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Mahoney as a lobbyist.

Kyrsten Sinema’s Problems Are Only Beginning