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What on Earth is Kyrsten Sinema doing?6 min read

Look. If you’re actually reading this column, or have any passing familiarity with what I typically write about, you probably already have a more-than-casual understanding of the political scene or, as I’ve said before, you’re my mother. You’re definitely not my wife, which I can say with some certainty.

If you are, in fact, not my mother, which is highly probable if we consider the global population and highly improbable if we consider my readership, then you fall in that first group. That means you don’t really need me to illuminate that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s defense of the filibuster makes no sense. This is particularly true since I’ve talked about Sinema’s odd obstructionism before.

But, man, I am stumped here, because wow does it make no sense.

For the record, no, I am not saying this from the perspective of a lefty yahoo who pushes liberal snowflake policy stances like allowing people to vote. I’m someone taking an objective outside view of what Sinema’s rationale could be. I’ve spent weeks thinking about why Sinema has steadfastly opposed filibuster reform, even as necessary minority voting protections and important climate change action die at its sacrificial altar. I know Sinema is not alone here – Sen. Joe Manchin has been similarly obstinate when it comes to the filibuster. But that position is coherent with his track record along with the conservative politics of his home state of West Virginia. Arizona does not have that profile, and I just can’t put my finger on what could be motivating Sinema in terms of principle, party affiliation, or self-interest.

If I’m playing a little too inside baseball, let’s take a step back here. It’s no secret that the Republican party has tried to make several structural changes to the electoral process. I’m not going to dive into the motivations behind that here, nor spend much time on the fact that the driving forces behind this GOP push kinda sorta maybe definitely possibly really did commit the literal definition of treason and so maybe they shouldn’t be in position to impact American governance, but, hey, that’s democracy, baby!

Lucky for people who actually value “small d democratic” principles, the Democrats have unified control of government for 10 more months, and that means there is a unique opportunity to formally enshrine important voting protections into law so we can avoid, you know, a coup. It’s true that thanks to the “wisdom of the founders,” we, by which I mean, Republicans, have some experience winning elections when most Americans wanted the other person. After all, the GOP has somehow held the Presidency the majority of my life despite winning the popular vote one whole time since 1988. It’s almost as if they manipulate a flawed system to enact policies the majority of the country doesn’t support. Pretty wacky! That’s probably not a great thing to normalize, though. While the protections in the Freedom to Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement acts don’t eliminate the electoral college, they would go to great lengths to snuff out funny business at the state level, which could very easily swing Congress and the Presidency.

One might suspect Sinema would understand that. And yet, that is one of three basic levels on which Sinema’s refusal to remove the filibuster for voting rights legislation makes no sense. I have looked at this three ways: The party’s interests, ethical interests, and personal interests. Right now Sinema strikes out on all three.

In terms of her party’s interest, the Democrats no doubt would stand to benefit from a return of preclearance, the practice of requiring certain states to make sure their voting regulations pass muster with the federal government and don’t target the disenfranchisement of non-white minorities. But even if you think the lust for power isn’t a valid motivator for legislative decisions (and you’d be right about that), there is the fairly strong ethical argument that those granted the right to vote by the Constitution should probably actually get to vote. Period. One could also take into account the practical fact that not only is protecting the right to vote for all Americans the right thing to do, it also prevents power grabs by a minority pursuing an agenda out of step with most Americans.

Lastly, there’s the one I really don’t get. You know, the selfish one. Back in my undergrad poli sci class we read the work of David Mayhew, one of the most-respected political scientists the U.S. has ever seen. While his work contains truly revelatory insight, he is maybe most famous for articulating the idea that is most obvious: Politicians want to keep their jobs. In short, Congresspeople want to be re-elected, and they will generally do what is popular with their constituency to get re-elected.

Sinema, one would think, is no different. And yet that’s not how it’s playing out in her home state. Arizona has gotten bluer and bluer in recent years thanks to a growing minority population and an influx of liberal transplants. Goldwater Republicans – or McCain Republicans for that matter – no longer rule the roost. Even as Sinema may think she’s defending an important carrot for bipartisanship, she is really reinforcing dysfunction that gives the opposition party the upper hand, and her constituents know it. Sinema’s refusal to allow a lift of the filibuster on voting rights legislation prompted a censure from Arizona’s Democratic party. Major donors for Sinema’s last campaign have already announced they will not support her re-election in 2024. Powerful Democratic colleagues in the Senate have signaled likely support for a primary challenger to Sinema two years from now.

All of this begs the question of “What the hell is going on?” One might argue Sinema is defending the filibuster because it is supported by her constituency, but it isn’t. One might argue defending the filibuster helps her case for re-election, but it doesn’t. Maybe one might argue the filibuster forces the hard work of governance and forges valuable compromise, but, man, it really, really doesn’t.

Most aspiring congresspeople probably fantasize about implementing a filibuster and living out Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But much as we might hope otherwise, Jimmy Stewart isn’t walking through that door. In reality, the filibuster has been a boulder chained to the ankle of democracy, slowing the passage of legislation like the New Deal and, famously, the 1957 Civil Rights Act. More recently it has been Mitch McConnell’s weapon of choice for preventing any kind of legislative action at all until the GOP can take back the chamber.

The filibuster is a relic that inhibits progress and reinforces minority rule. It is mind-boggling that Sinema does not see that, and it is mind-boggling that she won’t even act in her own interests to vote it down. Political observers across the spectrum simply can’t figure out what her calculus is, and if it doesn’t become clearer, Sinema may be looking for a new job 34 months from now.

Maybe that’s what she’s counting on. Perhaps former-Senator Sinema expects to cash in by getting high appearance fees on the speaking circuit. I wonder which one would have her. Just like everything else about her, I simply have no idea.

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