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How Kyrsten Sinema, Once a Socialist, Is Now Obstructing the Democrats’ Progressive Platform

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Image Credit: Rod Lamkey/via Reuters

President Biden acknowledged Thursday his Build Back Better agenda is in jeopardy due to two Senate Democrats: Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both senators have pushed Biden to slash in half his $3.5 trillion proposal that would be spent over 10 years to vastly expand the safety net and combat the climate crisis. We take an in-depth look at the two lawmakers, starting with Sinema. “Unfortunately, Sinema really reads as a cautionary tale of what happens when political ambition becomes a be-all and end-all,” says Branko Marcetic, Jacobin staff writer, who describes the political evolution of Sinema, who ran in her early career as a socialist and has moved “rightward and rightward every step of the way.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

During a CNN town hall Thursday night, President Biden defended his domestic agenda but acknowledged key aspects of his Build Back Better plan are in jeopardy due to two Senate Democrats: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. With the Senate evenly split, Biden needs support from both of them to pass the plan through the reconciliation process.

Biden’s initial proposal called for $3.5 trillion over 10 years to vastly expand the social safety net and combat the climate crisis. But after facing opposition from Manchin and Sinema, Biden has reportedly lowered the topline price tag on the package to $1.75 trillion — half the original bill.

Manchin, who has millions of dollars in the coal industry in West Virginia, has also demanded Democrats strip out funding for the Clean Electricity Performance Program, a critical climate initiative to replace coal- and gas-fired power plants with renewable energy sources. On Thursday, CNN’s Anderson Cooper questioned Biden about healthcare provisions in the bill.

ANDERSON COOPER: One of the other things that Democrats are looking to do is to expand Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing, as well. Given all the negotiations that are going on, will all three of those still be covered?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: That’s a reach. And the reason why it’s a reach is not this — I think it’s a good idea, and it’s not that costly in relative terms, especially if we allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices. But here’s the thing: Mr. Manchin is opposed to that, as is, I think, Senator Sinema, as well.

ANDERSON COOPER: Opposed to all of them?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Opposed to all three, because they don’t want — he says he doesn’t want to further burden Medicare.

AMY GOODMAN: Biden also talked more about Senator Sinema’s opposition to his domestic agenda.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: She’s smart as the devil, number one. Number two, she’s very supportive of the environmental agenda in my legislation, very supportive. She’s supportive of all — almost all the things I mentioned relating to everything from family care to all those issues. Where she’s not supportive is she says she will not raise a single penny in taxes on the corporate side and/or on wealthy people, period.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, five advisers to Senator Sinema quit yesterday, saying she is putting the profits of her donors over the service to the people. Biden also made news when he appeared to support overhauling the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation. He was questioned by Anderson Cooper.

ANDERSON COOPER: When it comes to voting rights, just so I’m clear, though, you would entertain the notion of doing away with the filibuster on that one issue? Is that correct?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And maybe more.

ANDERSON COOPER: And maybe other issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Both Senators Manchin and Sinema have opposed reforming the filibuster.

We turn now to look more closely at the two conservative Democrats fighting Biden. Joining us from West Virginia, Stephen Smith, co-chair of West Virginia Can’t Wait. He ran for governor of West Virginia in 2020, placing second in the Democratic primary. And joining us from Chicago is Branko Marcetic, staff writer at Jacobin magazine. In March, he wrote an in-depth profile of Senator Kyrsten Sinema for Jacobin headlined “How Kyrsten Sinema Went from Lefty Activist to Proud Neoliberal Democrat.” He’s also author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.

Well, you certainly cover a lot there, Branko. Let’s start with Kyrsten Sinema. Most people may not know she was the campaign manager for Ralph Nader in Arizona. But talk about what’s happening now. I mean, you’ve got all the advisers quitting yesterday, saying she’s putting the profits of her donors over the people. Talk about what she stands for.

BRANKO MARCETIC: I mean, Sinema, I think, has really shown to stand mostly for the interests of the corporate sector, of the wealthy. And this isn’t a new development. When she was in the House, she also — she was one of the lawmakers who tried to — and did — repeal parts of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. She went after Obamacare, for instance, trying to repeal taxes on medical technology makers. She tried to get rid of the individual mandate, and various other deregulatory actions. And it’s all because, you know, she is trying to, I think, appeal to these interests, because they fund her campaign.

And she’s been very lavishly rewarded. You know, she’s one of the few Democrats who gets the Chamber of Commerce endorsement. She won the Chamber of Commerce award, the Spirit of Enterprise Award, seven years in a row, because she got over 70% score from the Chamber of Commerce for her legislative work.

So, yeah, I think this is what we’re seeing right now, is Sinema is really listening to her constituents, and her constituents are not the people that voted her in. At least, you know, that’s not what she considers as her most important constituency. She considers that to be the corporate sector. And she’s, you know, most responsive to them.

And I think what we’re maybe seeing with some of these advisers quitting is that the kind of tack she’s taking is now starting to see a real backlash. It’s been building for a while, but now it’s kind of reaching a boiling point, that may actually end up haunting her long term.

AMY GOODMAN: And that famous image of her in the well of the Senate voting against raising the minimum wage — you know, John McCain famously gave a thumbs down in the well of the Senate. She did, too. Explain that moment.

BRANKO MARCETIC: Well, Sinema is clearly trying to fashion herself —

AMY GOODMAN: He was doing it to save Obamacare.

BRANKO MARCETIC: Yeah, that’s a very key thing to remember. She is trying to, I think, fashion herself as this kind of renegade or, you know, maverick in the style of John McCain. I mean, the reason that John McCain was considered a maverick was because he was seen — and I think this was overstated, but, nonetheless, he was seen as a more sensible Republican, a Republican who, for instance, would not elect to throw millions of people off healthcare, or someone — a Republican who was very much in favor of reining in campaign donations, and other things that are traditionally more so said with the Democrats. So, you know, McCain was someone who, rightly or wrongly, had this image of defying his party to do things that were very much in the interests of most working people.

Sinema, on the other hand, is very much doing the opposite. She’s being a maverick by fighting for corporate interests. So it’s a completely topsy-turvy kind of version of what McCain was doing. It only harkens back to his career in a very superficial way, in the sense of spurning your party in a very visible and high-profile way. But, ultimately, you know, it’s a very performative thing from Sinema that she’s doing.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk more about the start of her career? I mean, now you have her going from her donor fundraisers to the White House to negotiate with Biden. But she began by attacking wealth inequality many years ago.

BRANKO MARCETIC: Yeah, she was a socialist, is what she called herself, at a time when it was very, very unfashionable to be a socialist. And, you know, unfortunately, I think, for me, Sinema really reads as kind of a cautionary tale of what happens when political ambition becomes the be-all and end-all.

You know, I don’t think — at least so far, no one has found any glaring conflict of interest that she has. She’s not particularly wealthy. She’s not enriching herself, aside from just getting her salary. And she’s not — you know, there’s no other kind of element of corruption going on here. It seems to me, from looking at her career, that this has really just been a matter of her moving rightward and rightward every step of the way, little by little, until she’s gotten to this point, you know, where I think, at first, she was doing this as a matter of performance, as a matter of presentation, and I think at this point that that performance has become the real thing. You know, you start out pretending to be one thing because you think it’s going to appeal to a certain constituency, and before you know it, after, you know, 10, 15 years, that really becomes the thing that you are.

AMY GOODMAN: So, specifically, in terms of her relationship with big money, corporate, Wall Street donors, last week Politico and The Daily Poster reported Sinema raised over $1.1 million between July and September, with 90% of the campaign donations coming from outside Arizona. At least $100,000 of those contributions came from people or entities linked to the drug or financial services industries. Top donors included pharma giant Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day, who gave $5,000 this past quarter. Another $2,900 came from the Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks. The executive chair of Merck’s board, Kenneth Frazier, gave $2,900, as did the chair and CEO of Bristol Myers. Branko?

BRANKO MARCETIC: I mean, you know, there you have it. It’s a very banal and depressing point, but it is true that money almost always wins out in Washington. And, you know, part of this might also be the problem of the fact that Biden split these two bills, in part, and also really slowed down the momentum of his presidency by trying to get this bipartisan buy-in, that I think was largely pointless. And that’s allowed — you know, whereas the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups favor that much smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill, they’re opposed to this $3.5 trillion one, largely because of the tax increases. Perhaps having them together would have neutralized some of that opposition. I don’t know.

But I think it’s, you know, because of the fact that they’re split, because there’s just months have gone by with just nothing happening, it’s allowed people like Sinema to become a little more brave in their opposition, and at the same time it’s allowed lobbyists and political donors to come in here and wedge themselves in and sort of pry these two particularly vulnerable Democratic senators apart from the rest of the caucus. So, it’s an unfortunate situation all around.

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Next story from this daily show

Sen. Joe Manchin’s Opposition to Biden Agenda Backed by History of Putting Corporations Over People

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