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Kyrsten Sinema’s Vibepartisanship

Her defense of the filibuster and bipartisanship is pure aesthetics.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema wrote a filibuster defense in the Washington Post earlier this week, a day before Republicans killed the Democrats’ attempt to expand voting rights and voter access. In the process, Sinema exposed herself as someone who doesn’t even seem to understand what it is she’s defending anymore.

She also underscored how little this brand of Democrat actually cares about “getting things done” — and how much they care about the perception that they are trying to get things done. In other words, they are not pushing bipartisanship because they are seeking results. They’re doing it as a form of brand management.

In her op-ed, Sinema—who represents a state where Trump supporters are currently trying to retroactively steal an election not only over the objection of Democrats but the GOP’s own Maricopa County officials—posed a dangerous hypothetical: the Democrats’ voting rights bill is passed through a busted filibuster and “replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the minority”.

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But the voting rights compromise offered up by Joe Manchin and endorsed by leading Democrats like former President Barack Obama and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams includes voter ID. Apparently at least one Democrat didn’t get the memo that voter ID laws are good now.

Undeterred, Sinema then put forward more terrifying things the GOP could do unrestrained by the filibuster, such as “dividing Medicaid into block grants, slashing earned Social Security and Medicare benefits.” The only problem is that they could do this through reconciliation if they have a majority and the willpower.

Whether it’s cynicism or a particularly bleak form of idealism, Sinema is far from the only one who pretends that the electorate hasn’t changed in the past 20 years as an excuse not to do anything. But even people who’ve been in Sinema’s orbit realize this is pure wishful thinking. “She’s trying to brand herself as a brand of Arizonan that won’t exist anymore,” a former aide recently told Politico of Sinema’s intent to become the political reincarnation of John McCain. “It’s misguided to look backward than forward. You can’t be a carbon copy because it won’t work.”

On Wednesday, the day after Sinema’s op-ed, every single Republican senator voted against even bringing the For the People Act to the floor for a debate and thus killed it, aided by the Democrats’ squeamishness at actually using the power voters gave them. Publicly at least, Senate Democrats are mostly shrugging about what their next move is even as Republicans in Sinema’s home state of Arizona, as well as in Georgia, Texas and elsewhere, have taken up anti-voting reforms with the goal of never having a competitive election again. The Senate’s uselessness knows no bounds.

It’s bewildering that Sinema even put her name on the op-ed, and her argument was taken apart on Twitter and by several outlets yesterday, including the Washington Post itself. But the filibuster is just a convenient tool for the bigger lie, which is that bipartisanship is more about actually fixing problems in an irreversible way and not just looking like you’re fixing those problems in an irreversible way.

Manchin has Senate brain and represents a state that, when he started in politics, had been under one-party rule for decades; he’s effectively the last Democrat standing in West Virginia now. Sinema, on the other hand, has been in the Senate for all of two and a half years is one of several Democrats to win statewide races in recent years (alongside people like Katie Hobbs and Mark Kelly) in a state that is moving further and further left. Whereas his own voters appear to be a consideration for Manchin (even if he’s often wrong about what those voters actually think), Sinema’s only concern seems to be what the Chamber of Commerce and her Republican friends think:

(At least ten people got arrested at Sinema’s office during a protest against the filibuster Tuesday, according to More Perfect Union.)

There’s a way to do infrastructure with Republicans if you also don’t really care about the climate, or minimum wage if you agree that workers don’t deserve a living wage, or immigration reform with Republicans if you share the goal of eradicating undocumented people from the U.S. The connecting tissue is that you’re both reactionaries and they’re just more open about it. But on an issue like voting rights, partisanship—not just ideology—is the thing that necessitates that you fight against them if you’re a Republican and fight for them if you are not. And seeking bipartisanship on this is such a futile exercise that the longer Sinema and others engage with this fantasy, the more they enable and embolden the GOP to embrace hyperpartisanship.

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Roy Blunt, the Senate Republican on behalf of whom Manchin reportedly bargained with billionaires to throw him some work after he retires next year, immediately put an end to the notion that Republicans would support a compromise crafted specifically to make them happy. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would effectively reinstate the Voting Rights Act with universal Justice Department pre-clearance rather than targeted pre-clearance in order to avoid another Shelby County vs. Holder, has exactly one Republican supporter, Lisa Murkowski, and it’s very possible that she will lose another primary and be forced to run another write-in campaign if she wants to stay in the Senate.

The last big federal election reform law was McCain-Feingold, spearheaded by Sinema’s own “personal hero“; the Republicans who gave it 60 votes in 2002 are now entirely gone from the Senate with the exception of Susan Collins. The overwhelming majority of them are dead.

But at this point the whole Republican business model is voter disenfranchisement, and expecting Republicans to come together with Democrats on any kind of expansion of voting rights is just as futile as expecting them to support Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. Pretending otherwise gives away the game, which is that bipartisanship isn’t a necessary evil (or even good) to achieve shared goals but an aesthetic choice. In other words, it’s just a vibe.