Friday, December 09, 2022

Sinema Purgatorio

David Super

     Others have written excellent analyses of the short- and medium-term significance of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s switch from Democrat to Independent.  To make a long story short, this is her only route to staying in the Senate as she has little chance in a Democratic primary, but the short-term consequences for partisan control of the Senate are minimal because it remains in both her interest and that of the Democratic Party for her to continue to caucus with the Democrats. 

     My purpose here instead is explore what responses to Simena’s curious path over the last few years can tell us about the current ailments of progressive politics in this country, particularly those relating to the legislative process.  Many different people within the progressive camp should be learning lessons from this episode, but I fear they will not – or at least they will miss the most important lessons.

     First, expertise and detailed information matter.  A lot.  Over the last two years, progressive activists continually railed at “the Democrats” – as if this was a homogeneous group – and insisted that “we” need to do this thing or that.  Experts understood that the current Senate lacks fifty committed Democrats.  It is now official.  “We” could not abolish the filibuster and do this or that because there was and is no “we” with fifty votes. 

     In particular, with attempts to pass the transformative Build Back Better legislation hung in the balance, many progressives lumped the two reluctant Democratic senators, Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, into the same bucket.  Worse, because Manchin made many more public statements about his reservations, and ultimately rejection of, the legislation. 

     Those closely engaged with Congress knew, however, that the two senators are fundamentally different.  I wrote several pieces defending Manchin and criticizing over-the-top attacks on him.  Missing from those pieces is any defense of Sinema. 

     Manchin is a Democrat, but a somewhat more moderate one, largely reflecting where the party was a few decades ago.  This is not all bad:  the Party used to be far more labor-oriented, and Manchin is considerably more attentive to the needs of low-paid workers than many prominent progressives.  For progressives even to come close to having a majority in this country, we need solid support from people with Manchin’s political beliefs. 

     Manchin is no saint, but his beliefs are largely sincere and her pursues them with unusual clarity and candor.  He does not sucker-punch his own party:  Democratic senators know when he is not on-board with their proposals, and he often keeps those concerns private to preserve Democrats’ negotiating leverage. 

     Manchin also will negotiate and keep to his word.  The version of Build Back Better he agreed to in Fall 2021 contained numerous provisions he opposed on the merits that he accepted as part of the negotiating process.  The deal collapsed when progressives sought to renege on their concessions in that bargain and launched a crude, incendiary pressure campaign against Manchin and his family.  In these ugly, violent times, and in a country with weapons freely available to all that want them, vilifying political leaders (including judges), or doxing them and their family members, should be strictly off-limits. 

     Sinema is an entirely different story from Manchin.  Democratic leaders tried to negotiate with her, too, but her demands continually shifted.  Those involved in those negotiations came to believe that she was acting not out of any firmly held beliefs but based on the demands of whatever corporate lobbyist had spoken with her most recently.  With Manchin insisting that the legislation not aggravate the deficit and Sinema vetoing first one then another of the bill’s revenue-raisers, finding a package that would satisfy both was challenging. 

     Ultimately, Democratic leaders made the sensible decision that the longer they negotiated with Sinema, the more he would add to her demands without ever reaching a firm agreement.  Their strategy was instead to work toward a deal with Manchin, whose priorities were clear and consistent, and then ask Sinema what her price would be to pass that package.  We have the Inflation Reduction Act – after many last-minute changes to meet her capricious demands – as a result of that strategy.  Even then, Sinema at the last minute abandoned the deal to vote for a Republican amendment that she knew would deprive the legislation of its majority.  After considerable begging from Democratic leaders, she then agreed to a curative amendment to remove the problematic provision. 

     Thus, while Manchin pulls the caucus ideologically toward the center, Sinema just interferes with Democrats’ ability to legislate and enhances moneyed interests’ leverage on the Party. 

     This is not to say that the vilification of Manchin should have been redirected at Sinema:  although that would have been more justified, it still would have been counter-productive, likely increasing the scope of her demands for concessions.  Crude, coercive pressure campaigns may feel good to those engaged in them, but at least under present circumstances they are deeply counter-productive.  Indeed, the vitriolic attacks on Sinema, although mild compared with those against Manchin, surely prompted her departure from the Democratic Party by persuading her that she had no chance in a primary.  As an independent seeking moderate Republican votes in the general election, she will have more freedom, and incentives, to undermine the Democratic agenda.  The attacks against Sinema backfired just as those against Manchin did, just in a more nuanced way.

     With an evenly-split electorate and an increasingly ruthless Republican party constrained by few moderates or committed institutionalists, progressives’ crowd-sourcing political strategy and tactics is a prescription for disaster. 

     The flipside of this lesson that expertise and sophisticated information are indispensable to formulating successful legislative efforts is that experts have no special advantage or legitimacy on normative matters.  Part of why so many progressives reject desperately needed legislative expertise on questions such as what was the best deal that could be struck on Build Back Better, how to deal with Manchin and Sinema, and the merits of (and feasibility of killing) the filibuster is that experts insist on dominating normative debates about what changes should progressives prioritize. 

     In my circles, administrative student loan relief – as opposed to addressing educational affordability pro-actively – was fairly low down the priority list.  Grassroots activists had a markedly different view, and the Biden Administration absolutely did the right thing in listening to them.  Whatever expertise we may have in congressional procedure gives us little comparative advantage on the merits of student loan relief.   Yes, we can run distributional tables and make game-theoretic arguments about how best to achieve long-term reductions in the share of higher education costs imposed on students and families, but that is only a modest part of the story.  We need to recognize that and defer. 

     Experts are even less equipped to mediate disagreements within the progressive base, such as that between people seeing more police protection and those seeking more protection from the police.  The only hope there is hard-nosed bargaining among authentic representatives of the various constituencies, not an attempt to impose a pax professoriate from above.

     This problem is very much the same one that has dogged Administrative Law over the decades.  The regime was established to privilege expertise and rationality, but those principles can only go so far in determining the content of the regulatory state.  We vacillate between embracing the normativity that the political process yields and trying to recast more and more choices as matters of expertise or process. 

     Serious progressive change in this country is impossible without a thoroughgoing rapprochement between legislative and political experts, on the one hand, and the communities that make up the progressive movement, on the other.  Greater mutual trust is in everybody’s interest:  it would allow experts to be heard more on issues within their competence and help organizers avoid the kind of over-promising that undermines their credibility in the communities they serve. 

     Those of us in the former camp need to speak and act with far more humility and hope that that earns us enough respect to be heard and considered on how to address complicated problems of political strategy and tactics, such as those regularly emanating from Arizona’s senior senator. 


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