The Validation of Kyrsten Sinema

The Arizona Senator was ridiculed and pilloried for wanting a bipartisan infrastructure deal. Who’s laughing now?

Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, broke her foot two weeks ago and is wearing a cast. When she and Republican Senator Rob Portman, of Ohio, moved toward the microphone outside the White House on Thursday, to announce their bipartisan infrastructure deal, Sinema whispered to Portman, “I’m just going to kind of hold on to you, if you don’t mind, so I don’t fall over.”

After all, Portman had just helped Sinema avoid falling over, politically speaking.

Even more so than Senator Joe Manchin, Sinema bet big on bipartisanship. The West Virginian has talked about it endlessly, but as a Democrat in a deep red state, embracing bipartisanship is a political necessity. Sinema represents a polarized purple state, but one that has been trending blue. Many Democrats believe Sinema’s obsession with bipartisanship and the preservation of filibuster is not just morally abhorrent but also politically foolish. Progressives have pounded her mercilessly and threatened to field a primary challenger in 2024. The only way for Sinema to validate her argument is to actually deliver some bipartisan policy victories.

When Sinema and Portman took the lead on negotiating an infrastructure bill, Portman could have let her fall. He could have been the proverbial Lucy with the football, causing Sinema to break her back as well as her foot. But he held the ball in place.

Why? Portman is retiring, so he doesn’t have to fear the wrath of the #MAGA Republican base. But that doesn’t explain why Republican Senators Bill Cassidy of Louisiana was standing alongside them, or Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, or Mitt Romney of Utah, or Susan Collins of Maine, a veritable Hands Across America of Republicans willing to make a deal.

Us political pundits, both professional and armchair, can’t be mind readers. We can track statements, tally votes, assess political incentives. We can’t know what’s in people’s hearts.

In analyzing the Senate Republicans’ legislative strategy to date, I have previously noted that they—including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—have voted for several bipartisan bills this year, many of which have already been signed into law. These bills—such as the suspension of statutory Medicare cuts and the investment in semiconductor manufacturing—have not been gargantuan items on the progressive wish list. Nevertheless, their failure would have made Biden’s presidency look dysfunctional.

So why didn’t Republicans seize each and every opportunity to stick it to Biden? My answer last month was, “Republicans don’t believe they can escape all blame for any unpopular obstruction,” and that “should inform Democratic legislative strategy.” After being politically traumatized by the extensive obstructionist tactics waged against the Barack Obama administration, many on the left couldn’t accept the possibility that at least some deals were possible. But the votes are the votes.

Of course, Republicans still can and will obstruct, as we saw with the 1/6 commission and voting rights filibusters. But where Republicans will draw the line between sincere negotiation and fervent opposition is hard to pinpoint. And the only way for Democrats to know is to negotiate.

If you watch the video of Gang of 10 announcement of the infrastructure deal, the group seems to genuinely like each other. In fact, there seemed to be a palpable relief that they could sideline the naysayers, ignore the nihilists, and prove that good old-fashioned negotiation can prevail in American politics.

Again, being a mind reader is beyond our capabilities. But beyond the political incentives for infrastructure investment—which long have transcended party lines—some legislators may enjoy legislating and want to get along with their fellow legislators.

Despite my relatively charitable view of Senate Republicans, I am not so naïve as to believe this one deal will lead to a tidal wave of deals. I can’t even say with certainty yet that this deal is going to make it to the president’s desk (though, as I indicated in a recent article, with the president’s full embrace, I believe the odds are very good). But some Republicans may well want to support an infrastructure deal in order to give them just enough of a reputation for reasonableness that they can more easily obstruct the rest of Biden’s agenda.

Still, this deal suggests Democrats can use a two-step strategy to facilitate future compromises. One: find the issues where the political cost for obstruction is too high for Republicans to pay. Two: find those legislators who in their hearts truly want to legislate.

Because the chance of failure will always remain, an advocate of bipartisanship is always vulnerable to charges of naivete. Sinema—a young, first-term senator who can exude frivolity in her fashion sense, and who transformed herself from left activist to zealous moderate—risked all by putting faith in her graying, staid Republican friends. And it seriously paid off.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"