While Senator Joe Manchin drew headlines over the weekend for announcing that he opposes H.R.1, seemingly dooming the Democrats’ plan to permanently destroy the integrity of federal elections, another Democrat Senator is riling Joe Biden and the left-wing that has taken over the party. Last week, as Biden commemorated the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, he surprised nearly everyone by blasting “two members” of his own party as obstacles to his administration’s radical agenda: not only Manchin but also apparently Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Specifically, Biden criticized their unwillingness to join the rest of their party in overturning the legislative filibuster, a staple of the Senate for over 200 years. While frustration over Manchin’s moderate stances is no surprise to most, progressive fury and frustration with Sinema is stunning because before she was labeled the “Senate Super Villain” of the left, she was widely considered one of their brightest stars.
When she won the seat of departing Republican Senator Jeff Flake in 2018, Democrats celebrated. The former Congresswoman would become the first bisexual Senator in history. This, combined with her flair for stylish, albeit iconoclastic, outfits paired with dyed wigs, made her a progressive internet sensation overnight.
They were particularly ecstatic at her swearing-in ceremony. Despite the fact that then-Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Sinema were cordial with one another while he swore her into the United States Senate, progressives delighted in a form of schadenfreude. In the words of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, this deeply religious man “had to smile through the camera at all of it…priceless.”
In title and trappings, she was a liberal celebrity. LGBTQ publication Advocate.com named her among “31 LGBTQ Women Who Changed Sports, Culture, Politics, and History.” In a 2019 Time article, “How Women in Congress Are Using Fashion to Send a Message,” Sinema was highlighted for how her “overtly feminist” outfits were changing Congress. When she presided over the Senate earlier this year in a pink sweater with “Dangerous Creature” written on the chest, she was again celebrated by the left, so much so that Senator Mitt Romney reportedly told her that she was “breaking the internet.”
Virtually no one imagined that the somewhat strange Senator Sinema would become an object of left-wing anger, with President Biden (who was elected as the ostensible moderate candidate of his party) attacking her directly as an obstruction to his left-wing agenda.
Today, the discussion of the Senator’s wardrobe has shifted. Her style, once seen as quirky and revolutionary, is now labeled “tone-deaf.” Where progressives once leaped to defend her when conservatives criticized her clothing choices, they now attack her for carrying a fashionable bag while conducting Senate business. The once-fabled revolutionary is now a “Marie Antoinette” within her own party. What changed?
Once Democrats took control of the Senate, they realized Sinema’s relative moderation—previously thought an electoral benefit in the swing state of Arizona—could be fatal for their hopes of remaking the country by abolishing the filibuster, packing the courts, and destroying the Second Amendment. Where her positioning as bipartisan consensus builder was once painted in a positive light, it’s now labeled a “nightmare.” Progressives seem to be struggling to comprehend how an LGBTQ Senator could have become the primary obstacle saving the country from their most fevered socialist dreams.
Sinema’s fellow Arizona Senator, Mark Kelly, finds himself in a similarly challenging position.
His willingness to blast and berate the Trump Administration made him popular with many progressives. He called for Trump’s conviction during the Second Impeachment Trial. With the former President out of the spotlight, Senator Kelly can no longer use this criticism as political cover to avoid the impossible choice between alienating the progressive left and alienating his center-right state of Arizona.
Sinema and Kelly’s elections marked the first time in 70 years that two Democratic Senators represented Arizona. However, their reelection is by no means guaranteed. If they vote with the radical left, they may lose their seats. If they vote with their state, they are likely to draw progressive primary opponents. But while Sinema does not have to worry about a primary until 2024, Kelly is up next year. That may be why they appear to have made such different political calculations. Sinema can afford to ensure her long-term political survival with a relatively moderate posture. Kelly, on the other hand, has made a bargain with the far-left to avoid a primary in exchange for supporting policies far out of step with the views of his state.
Despite these electoral concerns, Arizona and national Democrats are pushing both Senators to set aside their own political interests and vote with the party. The irony of such a vote would be that, should Democrats succeed in abolishing the filibuster, they would likely be voted out of the majority before they could fully exploit that decision, thus surrendering a great deal of power to the GOP.
While Kelly, a straight white male, is easier for progressives to criticize and dismiss (which may be another reason he has to go farther left to appease them), Sinema represents an inconvenient fact for Democrats. The party has been relentless in its belief that greater representation of LGBTQ and minority legislators will lead to a proliferation of progressive policy. Yet, in the case of Sinema, it appears that overvaluing the importance of identity politics “box-checking” above principle can leave the party flat-footed when someone who checks the right boxes votes the wrong way.