The Kyrsten Sinema drama.

Did protesters cross the line? What does the Arizona senator want?
Isaac Saul Oct 5, 2021

Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're talking about Kyrsten Sinema. Plus, a question about getting solar panels from China's forced labor camps.

Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America

Quick hits.

  1. Former President Donald Trump was talked out of making an early announcement for the 2024 presidential race, but has told advisors he is planning to run. (The decision)
  2. Major outages of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp disrupted the internet yesterday. (The outage)
  3. The Supreme Court began its fall term yesterday, beginning what may become the most historic term of the last few decades. (The term)
  4. The Pfizer vaccine is still 90 percent effective against hospitalization and death after six months, but drops to only 47 percent effective in stopping infections. (The vaccine)  
  5. Frances Hugen, the Facebook whistleblower who leaked documents revealing Instagram's negative impact on teens, is testifying before Congress. (The testimony)

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Today's topic.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. The Arizona Democrat has been getting more and more attention as the debate over how to move forward on Joe Biden's agenda continues. While Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has owned much of the spotlight as a "moderate" or "conservative" Democrat who needs to be won over to advance some of Biden's top priorities, Sinema has frequently joined him as a pillar of opposition to some of Biden's largest spending plans.

The 45-year-old Sinema was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012. In 2018, she won a Senate race against Republican Martha McSally to replace Jeff Flake, the never-Trump Republican who retired earlier that year. She has been a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, and the New Democrat Coalition. Her voting record is one of the most conservative of any Democrat in the Senate. She is also the first openly bisexual woman to ever be elected to Congress and the first woman to be elected to the Senate from Arizona.

Attention on Sinema has reached a fever pitch in the last few days after several public encounters with protesters who are trying to pressure her into voting for Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill.

First, Sinema was followed into a bathroom at Arizona State University, where she teaches, by protesters who were recording her on their phones. The activists were from the organization Living United for Change in Arizona, or Lucha, the Spanish word for fight. One identified herself as an undocumented immigrant and told Sinema they needed her vote to establish a pathway to citizenship (the Senate parliamentarian has ruled Democrats cannot insert immigration reform into the reconciliation bill, though the Biden administration has still promised to push for reform legislation).

The activist group tweeted that they wouldn't have resorted to confronting Sinema “if she took meetings with the communities that elected her... She’s been completely inaccessible,” Lucha wrote. “We’re sick of the political games, stop playing with our lives.”

President Biden, asked about the confrontation, called the tactics inappropriate but said "it happens to everyone. The only people it doesn't happen to are people who have secret service standing around them."

Later, protesters gathered outside a private fundraiser for Sinema, and then she was confronted on an airplane as she headed back to Washington, D.C.

Below, we'll take a look at some commentary from the right and left on Sinema, then my take.


What the right is saying.

The right criticized the protests and heralded Sinema for being the Democrat's version of Sen. John McCain, who was known as the Maverick.

"To understand Sinema," Jon Gabriel said in National Review, "you need to understand Arizona."

"The Beltway’s frustration is hugely entertaining for Arizonan conservatives and many of my Democratic neighbors," Gabriel wrote. "She isn’t an enigma to us locals. But to understand Kyrsten Sinema, you must first understand Arizona. For years, outsiders considered Arizona to be the reddest of red states. That changed with Sinema’s 2018 Senate victory followed by President Biden and Senator Mark Kelly’s (D., Ariz.) 2020 wins. Was Arizona turning blue? Not so much. The state has swung right to left and back again... In the past 45 years, Democrats have held the governorship as often as the Republicans have. That’s because Arizona is neither conservative nor progressive. It’s contrarian.

Sinema "now has trackers following her to speeches as well as the class she teaches at Arizona State University," Gabriel added. "Over the weekend, progressives even followed her with a camera in and out of an ASU ladies’ room, a violation of state law. Activists boast of their ugly pressure campaign but, if anything, it will help Sinema in voters’ eyes. In the most recent statewide poll, 46 percent of voters viewed Sinema favorably while 39 percent viewed her unfavorably. Her net favorability is three points higher than that of fellow Arizona Democratic senator Mark Kelly, who keeps his bald head down and meekly obeys party leadership... She’s also well liked on both sides, having built working relationships and personal friendships with political opponents for years. Sinema is a shrewd enough politician to know that voters back home want politicians who get things done, even if it means working across the aisle."

In The Wall Street Journal, William McGurn said Sinema is the "Bad Maverick."

"In his day the media cheered [Sen. John] McCain as a 'maverick' who put principle ahead of party," McGurn said. "But it turns out the word maverick applies only to Republicans opposing a Republican agenda. As Ms. Sinema’s opposition to Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion agenda is revealing, a maverick in the Democratic Party elicits far different treatment... As for Mr. Manchin, as much as Democrats might resent the senior senator from West Virginia, he doesn’t seem to rankle them as much as the senior senator from Arizona. Maybe it’s because, as Mr. Manchin recently noted, he’s 'never been a liberal' and no one was ever under any illusion he was.

"By contrast, Ms. Sinema started out on the left, with roots in the Green Party and anti-Iraq War activism," McGurn said. "As a legislator, however, she’s proved herself willing to work across the aisle, and in her willingness to drive party leaders nuts some detect the same streak of Arizona defiance that characterized two of her Republican predecessors in the senate— Barry Goldwater and John McCain. McCain’s maverick identity, they say, has become Sen. Sinema’s model... She also knows Arizona is not a progressive state, notwithstanding that it went narrowly for Mr. Biden in 2020 and last year sent another Democrat, Mark Kelly, to the Senate. Perhaps Ms. Sinema is positioning herself to keep her seat when she’s up for election again in 2024 even if the state reverts to voting Republican."

In Spectator, Scott McKay asked if the Democrat "civil war" just started in a public bathroom.

"We’ll skip the big-picture commentary about just how lousy the Left is at persuasion anymore," McKay wrote. "You already know all of that. It’ll suffice to say that this is more likely to have the effect of hardening Sinema’s position against the $3.5 trillion than it is to persuade her. Losers threatening to beat her in the next election when she’s clearly had her own internal polling done and knows she can only win by minimizing the amount of irritation she imposes on independents and soft Republican voters, won’t really move the needle... It’s been several years of this kind of behavior on the Left thanks to the rhetoric of people like Barack Obama, Sanders (who called for a 'political revolution' and then acted surprised when one of his stooge followers attempted the political assassination of several Republican members of Congress), and Maxine Waters.

"We can predict the outcome of the Democrat Civil War," he added. "It’s going to end up exactly the same in politics as it did in other venues like academia, Hollywood, the arts, and journalism, where the Hard Left has chased ordinary liberals and moderates off and begun imposing ruin on the institution. But unlike those, in politics there are still some conservatives around to benefit from the implosion. So let the games begin."


What the left is saying.

The left is increasingly worried about the risks Sinema poses and wants to ramp up the pressure on her to support reconciliation.

In Slow Boring, Matty Yglesias said "Kyrsten Sinema must be stopped."

"Progressives should love and cherish Joe Manchin. If you look at West Virginia’s underlying partisanship, he is clearly the person with the highest Value Over Replacement in the whole Senate," he said. "And then there’s Kyrsten Sinema. Her home state is much less red than West Virginia. And her electoral performance is unimpressive compared to the partisan fundamentals. Beyond that, her objections to the Biden agenda — as far as we can tell — don’t really come from a standpoint of political prudence or electoral calculation at all. Instead, she largely seems to object to the most popular, most populist ideas that Biden has.

"Sinema has been the key objector to Democrats’ prescription drug pricing proposal, which (as we saw from David Shor’s polling earlier this week) is literally the most popular item on the Democratic agenda," Yglesias added. "She also said she’s opposed to any kind of increase of corporate or individual income tax rates, even floating the insanely unpopular idea of a carbon tax as an alternative. The idea that wealthy people and corporations pay too little taxes is Americans’ number one complaint about the current tax code. Remember that strong national political environment Democrats enjoyed in 2018? A big reason it was so strong is that Trump and congressional Republicans pushed through a giant business tax cut that was hideously unpopular. Trump’s low point in the polls had nothing to do with Covid or Russia or scandals or inappropriate behavior — it was when his top political priority was revealed to be helping rich people and global businesses."

In The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg asked "What's wrong with Kyrsten Sinema?"

"People sometimes describe the Arizona senator as a centrist, but that seems the wrong term for someone who’s been working to derail some of the most broadly popular parts of Joe Biden’s agenda, corporate tax increases and reforms to lower prescription drug prices," Goldberg wrote. "Instead, she’s just acting as an obstructionist, seeming to bask in the approbation of Republicans who will probably never vote for her.

"When Sinema ran for Senate, the former left-wing firebrand reportedly told her advisers that she hoped to be the next John McCain, an independent force willing to buck her own party," she added. "Voting against a $15 minimum wage this year, she gave a thumbs down — accompanied by an obnoxious little curtsy — that seemed meant to recall the gesture McCain made when he voted against repealing key measures of the Affordable Care Act in 2017. But people admired McCain because they felt he embodied a consistent set of values, a straight-talking Captain America kind of patriotism... Sinema, by contrast, breaks with her fellow Democrats much more often. There hasn’t been a year since she entered Congress, [Harry] Enten wrote, when she’s voted with her party more than 75 percent of the time. But what really makes her different from McCain is that nobody seems to know what she stands for."

In Mic, Rafi Schwartz said it's "no wonder people are yelling at Kyrsten Sinema."

"I am personally of the mind that if someone is elected to high national office, they absolutely deserve to be yelled at all the time, no matter the circumstances," Schwartz said. "If a person holds the lives and wellbeing of millions of constituents in their hands, then a sincere haranguing is truly a small price to pay in exchange for that sort of unimaginable power and privilege — especially if that person has gone out of their way to make themselves as unavailable as possible to those same constituents who might otherwise go through more traditional channels to get their representative's attention."Which is all to say: I don't really have a problem with a group of activists trying to hold Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema accountable for her obstinate, and largely self-serving, refusal to not only pass her own party's legislative priorities, but to even explain why she's chosen to derail them in the first place," Schwartz added. "That progressives had to approach Sinema in her classroom at Arizona State University, trailing her to a nearby restroom as she refused to acknowledge their personal stories of human trafficking and anti-immigrant experiences, says more about her effort to insulate herself from criticism than it does any perceived impropriety on the part of the activists."


My take.

Let's just start with something basic: Don't follow people into public bathrooms with your phone recording.

Sorry, you're never going to get me on board with that kind of "activism," especially so when your impromptu protest ends up catching a bunch of innocent strangers on the video that you then go post on the internet for millions to see. It's not about pearl-clutching standards of decency. Many of the right-wingers now criticizing the protesters have participated in some of the ugliest confrontational politics in the modern era. But it's just stupid, often illegal, and makes you look a tad deranged.

It's also political malpractice. Does anyone actually think these kinds of tactics are going to do anything other than harden Sinema's position and make her loathe the opposition to her left? There was a time when Sinema was the kind of person who participated in these sorts of demonstrations herself, but that time is clearly long past. And she isn't going to suddenly hop on board with the reconciliation bill because a bunch of young progressives tried to embarrass her in a bathroom stall while she was teaching at Arizona State University.

That being said, we can save some scorn for Sinema as well.

It's one thing to be Sen. John McCain — someone whose principles were well-stated, mostly consistent and at least predictable. A lot of people saw value in that. I don't. I think people who don't change their minds over the course of 30 years are probably close-minded ideologues who shouldn't be U.S. senators. But at least you knew where McCain stood.

What does Sinema want? Bipartisan agreement? Please. She wants to win her 2024 election, which is a perfectly logical motivation for a senator to have. She knows staying near the center is probably going to help. But when you hold the keys to a massive agenda 80 million Americans voted for not even a year ago, you should at least be able to explain why you won’t use them. So far, Sinema seems incapable of doing that. It's not enough to say "because Republicans don't support it." There has to be an actual debate about what she wants in the bill and what she wants to cut, why she feels that way, and how it fits into her larger vision of the country she wants. That explanation is, so far, not forthcoming.

There are a few other things worth pointing out, too: First, Sinema isn't doing this just to rake in corporate money. If she pisses off enough of the left, which she may have already done, she'll lose money when the small donors who float most Senate candidates right now abandon her. As Yglesias rightly noted, "Sinema isn’t blocking popular progressive ideas because she’s getting corporate money; she’s getting corporate money because she’s blocking popular progressive ideas, and businesses want their key ally to succeed and prosper."

Secondly, Sinema has been nearly impossible to reach as a legislator. So while I’m not a fan of  activists stalking her into a bathroom stall with their phones out, we shouldn't gloss over the fact that she owes it to her constituents to be available to them at some point, and she has done an impressively bad job of that. Top it off with the fact she left Washington D.C. in the midst of the negotiations on the reconciliation bill to attend a fundraiser with big donors in Phoenix at a high-end resort and spa, and it's not hard to imagine why so many of her own constituents are at their wit’s end with her.

Sinema has every right to oppose this legislation. Just because it's Biden's agenda doesn't mean it has to be hers. Of all people, I'll be the first to celebrate someone who bucks party lines and offers some heterodox thinking. The issue here, though, is that Sinema isn't doing that — she just seems locked into a position that's inconsistent with her past stated views and divorced from many clearly expressed preferences of the voters she represents. If she's going to say "no," that's fine. But the least she could do is offer a cogent explanation of why, and preferably one that fits into a larger vision of what her goals are in the Senate.


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Your questions, answered.

Q: How are politicians reconciling the humanitarian crisis on Uyghurs in China with the demand for more solar power development in the U.S.? If they pass even just one of their infrastructure bills, let alone both, there are plans for more investment in renewable energy, including solar, but it still remains that 80% of the world’s silicon (necessary for solar panels) comes from China and, most likely, by the use of force-labor camps controlled by the CCP. How do politicians plan to solve this conflict of interest?

— Rosie, Houston, Texas

Tangle: It's a great question and there isn't a good answer. John Kerry, the climate envoy, has said Washington is deciding whether to keep solar products from Xinjiang out of U.S. markets. But doing that would create huge problems for Biden, who wants to promote renewables and cut costs. It's not at all clear how the U.S. could meet rising demand without Xinjiang, where many Uyghurs are being forced into labor camps that presumably work on the polysilicon used in solar panels. Prices were already up 100% between January and May, at a 9-year-high, to meet the global demand.

One sliver of light: Johannes Bernreuter, head of Germany’s Bernreuter Research, told the Associated Press that if the U.S. and European markets were to abandon Xinjiang's supply they could probably get enough polysilicon to make it work. But if any other countries followed suit, the supplies would quickly get squeezed. So we could theoretically wash our own hands, but not without forcing other countries into the same ethical predicament.

Worsening the situation is the mounting evidence of the atrocities in China. A Chinese detective in exile just came forward with harrowing stories of a "systematic campaign of torture against ethnic Uyghurs" that included "shackling people to a metal or wooden 'tiger chair' -- chairs designed to immobilize suspects -- hanging people from the ceiling, sexual violence, electrocutions, and waterboarding."

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A story that matters.

Energy prices are climbing around the world thanks to supply constraints, rising demand and bouts of extreme weather. In China and India, there is an electricity crisis. Dozens of power companies in the U.K. have folded and there is a massive gas shortage because there are so few truck drivers to transport the fuel. Fuel at U.S. pumps is up about 50 percent on average over the last year, and oil and natural gas prices have also risen. Economists are warning that rising energy costs are one good way to slow the economic recovery: "Every dollar that goes to electric and heating bills is a dollar that isn't spent on holiday shopping or going out to eat," Axios reported.


Numbers.

  • 100%. So far, the percentage of votes Kyrsten Sinema has made in line with Joe Biden, according to a vote tracker from FiveThirtyEight.
  • 100%. So far, the percentage of votes Joe Manchin has made in line with Joe Biden, according to a vote tracker from FiveThirtyEight.
  • 46%. The percentage of Arizona Democrats who approve of Sinema's job performance in the third quarter of 2021, down 21 points from the first quarter.
  • 42%. The percentage of all Arizona voters who approve of her, compared to 48% who said the same earlier this year.
  • 40%. The percentage of Democratic voters who said they disapproved of Sinema in the third quarter of 2021.
  • 45%. The percentage of Republican voters who said they disapproved of Sinema in the third quarter of 2021.

Help us out!


Have a nice day.

Chadwick Boseman, the star of Black Panther who died in 2020 of colon cancer, is being memorialized with a $5.4 million scholarship partnership between Netflix and his alma mater, Howard University. The scholarship fund will provide one freshman student per incoming class with a four-year scholarship covering full cost of university tuition, with a focus on students who have exemplified exceptional skills in the arts and demonstrate financial need. The program will begin this fall by awarding four scholarships to a student in each class. CNN has the story.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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