Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
the national interest

Kyrsten Sinema Is Playing Chicken

Going independent is a way to force Democrats to back her.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The biggest loser of the 2022 election other than Donald Trump was Kyrsten Sinema. The Arizona senator and now-former Democrat desperately needed Democrats, especially fellow senator Mark Kelly, to lose. Only such a setback would make the party desperate enough to tolerate her continued presence. Kelly’s reelection made it certain that Sinema would face, and lose, a primary challenge in two years.

Sinema’s declaration of independence from the party is a ploy to avoid the primary and keep her job. Democrats could still run a candidate against her in the general election, of course, but they would face an extremely difficult prospect of winning. So her calculation in leaving the party is that she can bluff it into sitting out the campaign altogether, endorsing her as the lesser-evil choice against the Republican nominee.

It may work. If it doesn’t, it is because Sinema has underestimated just how much ill will she has generated across the breadth of the Democratic Party by reconceptualizing her role as the personal concierge of the superrich.

In an op-ed announcing her move, Sinema presents her defection from the party as a response to popular demand, lacing the prose with repeated references to “everyday Americans,” such as: “There’s a disconnect between what everyday Americans want and deserve from our politics, and what political parties are offering.”

That may be true, but the problem is that everyday Americans demonstrably do not want what Sinema is offering. The primary disconnect in American politics is that Democrats are to the left of the public on social issues, and Republicans to the right on economic issues. Both parties are pulled to these extremes by activists and donors.

Sinema’s unique brand is a more extreme version on both dimensions. She has combined a cosmopolitan, progressive social-issue profile with a far-right economic agenda, the appeal of which is confined to an extremely rarified circle of affluent libertarians. She presents herself as an advocate of allowing Medicare to negotiate cheaper prescription-drug prices, a wildly popular proposal. “For Arizonans who’ve supported my work to make health care more affordable and accessible, they should know I will continue that work,” she writes, “as I did when I helped negotiate a historic law allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices while still ensuring robust medical innovation.”

In reality, Sinema fought this proposal all the way to the end, before finally accepting a scaled-back version acceptable to the industry. “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,” said Joe Manchin.

Sinema almost single-handedly neutered the Democrats’ popular proposals to raise taxes on the very rich. At one point, she demanded the party raise the threshold of its millionaire tax from earnings over $5 million a year to $10 million a year, before eventually turning against that, too. She forced Democrats to give up a plan to scale back the carried-interest tax loophole, a giveaway for the wealthy so noxious and unjustifiable that even many Republicans refuse to defend it publicly. Indeed, even many Wall Street insiders concede the loophole is a pure giveaway. “Hats off to the P/E lobby! After all these years and budget crises, the highest paid people still pay the lower capital gains tax on earnings from their labor,” jeered former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankein.

Sinema’s willingness to carry water for even the most politically toxic elements of the plutocratic agenda has generated cynicism and suspicion on the left. But it is difficult to discern any personal interest she is advancing through these positions. That she has put her own political future at risk suggests the motivating force is genuine conviction, albeit of a pathetically gullible variety. Sinema seems to have grown so receptive to special pleading from the wealthy that she is unable to distinguish between their interests and those of the public.

By breaking from the party on its most popular issues while staying loyal on its least popular elements, Sinema has managed the difficult task of making herself deeply loathed by Democrats without winning support from independents.

Her response of leaving the party and running as an independent is being hailed as brilliant. And it is true that she has given herself a chance to survive.

But it would be more accurate to say she is playing a game of chicken. Democrats know that if they run a candidate against her in the general election, they will probably lose. But Sinema also knows that she would absolutely lose in that scenario. Indeed, in a three-way race, Sinema would almost certainly finish a very distant third.

The way you win a game of chicken is by credibly demonstrating your refusal to be deterred. The classic game-theory example is to imagine two drivers racing toward each other on a single-lane road, each trying to force the other to veer off. If one driver could somehow disable their steering wheel and throw it out the window, they would win. The nuclear-war version of this concept is the doomsday machine that automatically and unalterably launches a counterstrike in the event of being attacked.

If Democrats refuse to run a candidate against her, and thus allow Sinema to win the game of chicken, they will be stuck with her in the Senate for potentially a long time. If, on the other hand, they field a candidate and refuse to budge, they can force her into a difficult choice. Whatever strategy they pick, the drama is only beginning.

Kyrsten Sinema Is Playing Chicken