Francis Wilkinson, Tribune News Service
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema showed up in Davos this week, where she celebrated her recently declared independence from partisanship. The most pressing problem in US politics, the former Democrat from Arizona told the World Economic Forum, was “a deeply broken two-party system.”
As Sinema was speaking, her “dear friend,” Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, was in Washington staffing committees with dysfunctional oddballs and partisan extremists. Meanwhile, in Sinema’s home state, the defeated GOP gubernatorial candidate was in her third month of claiming to be the rightful ruler of Arizona.
A U.S. senator announcing that she has become an “independent” — while retaining her Democratic committee assignments — is akin to the left tackle for the Dallas Cowboys declaring that he has grown tired of the long twilight struggle against the Green Bay Packers and henceforth will roam the gridiron as an independent — while still lining up with the Cowboys.
Say what? As political scientist and multi-party enthusiast Lee Drutman writes: “True independence in our partisan system is a fantasy.”
There simply are no independents in Congress. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist from Vermont, caucuses with Democrats and runs for president in Democratic primaries. If Sanders could find some other grumpy Democratic Socialists to party with, they would probably caucus with the Democrats, too.
Angus King of Maine is the other Senate independent. King is an independent because — well, I don’t really know, do you? King voted the Joe Biden line 98% of the time in the last Congress. “Independence” seems to be a carryover from King’s long-ago tenure as Maine’s nonaligned governor. In the legislature, the label seems just a function of inertia.
By contrast, King’s Maine colleague, Susan Collins, has remained a loyal Republican throughout the GOP’s Trump-era descent. That can’t be easy. And Collins has done it while voting with Biden 67% of the time. In an analysis of bipartisan bona fides, Collins ranked second in the Senate in bipartisanship in 2021. King ranked 20th.
Sinema tied her newfound independence to her abhorrence of partisanship. In an essay last month in the Arizona Republic, Sinema wrote: “Bipartisan compromise is seen as a rarely acceptable last resort, rather than the best way to achieve lasting progress. Payback against the opposition party has replaced thoughtful legislating.”
Sinema’s familiar lament portrays bipartisanship as the opposite of partisanship. The former is good; the latter very, very bad.
In the Senate, bipartisanship is usually essential due to the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 votes for most legislation. At the same time, the Senate is organized as a partisan endeavor. Little happens there, from committee hearings to floor debates and the scheduling of votes, without the blessing of the majority’s leadership. If bipartisan legislation passes Congress, it’s not because partisanship has been set aside. It’s because the partisan leaders in both houses deemed it substantively or politically beneficial — and some members of the minority party agreed. Bipartisanship isn’t the opposite of partisanship; like everything else in Congress, it’s a byproduct of it.
Sinema’s departure from the Democratic Party was preceded by news that she and Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina had crafted a bipartisan proposal on immigration, one of Congress’s most consistent and consequential policy failures. Their modest proposal, which would have bolstered resources for processing migrants while putting a couple million Dreamers on a path to citizenship, failed. Why? Because the partisan leader of Senate Republicans wanted it to fail, and the partisan leader of Senate Democrats was OK with that. If you want a bipartisan accomplishment, you’d best get partisan buy-in.
Sinema is eager to be seen as centrist. But some of the biggest bipartisan actors are also some of the most admired and reviled partisan icons. Senator Edward Kennedy was considered a political maestro for enticing conservatives — Utah Republican Orrin Hatch was a frequent ally — into legislative partnership. Has there been a more partisan name, or more polarizing politician, than Ted Kennedy? It turns out that being good at politics, and caring deeply about particular policies, is more important to political achievement than occupying perceived middle ground.
What is Sinema passionate about? Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, no slouch at leveraging opposition to her own party or angling for notoriety, pointed out that in announcing her big move, Sinema didn’t “offer a single concrete value or policy she believes in. She lays out no goals for Arizonans, no vision, no commitments.”
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