Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party last week when she announced that she was changing her registration from Democrat to political independent. Sinema and party leaders said the switch would have no practical impact on Democrats' narrow majority in the chamber, which expanded by one seat to 51-49 in the November midterms. Sinema explained her decision in a column in The Arizona Republic, saying both parties cater too much to their fringes, stoking division and making bipartisan compromise "a rarely acceptable last resort." She wrote that she was joining "the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington."
Progressives were already angry at Sinema for defecting on key legislation and said she was only trying to avoid getting primaried in 2024. But supporters of the move said Sinema was showing moderates that they don't have to let party leaders steamroll them in an increasingly partisan political world. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), another moderate Democrat who has been a key potential swing vote in the evenly split Senate, said this week that he had "no intention" of following Sinema's lead and leaving the Democratic Party, although he left the door open to doing it someday. Is Sinema just looking out for herself, or is she setting an example more politicians should follow to help find a middle ground?
Sinema can help fix a broken two-party system
Sinema is right, says Herb Paine in The Arizona Republic. "The system is broken. The parties are broken. The need exists to breathe new energy into a failing system." Washington needs more people willing to set aside ideological purity and work together to "achieve civil discourse, bipartisanship, and consensus-building with the opposition party." Otherwise, it's nearly impossible to get anything done.
She must have seen the logic of her predecessor, Jeff Flake. "A principled Republican, battered by the polarization of the times, the senator observed, in his farewell speech on the Senate floor, the disarray of the political process and the existential threats to democracy." Sinema is a pragmatist, willing to face the "rage of left-wing Democrats" because she knows that political change comes "incrementally," and that's something people on the extremes in both parties fail to see.
Opportunists like Sinema are the problem, not the solution
Sinema isn't trying to save the world from "the vitriol in politics," says Ja'han Jones at MSNBC's The ReidOut Blog. She's only trying to save herself. Ditching the Democrats to register as an independent is just "a cute party trick" the former Green Party-activist-turned-independent-turned-Democrat-turned-independent "has used to her political benefit in the past."
Black and brown progressives learned that Sinema was driven by self-interest through her "obstruction of voting rights legislation — and her silence about voter suppression in Arizona." This move "could have some obvious advantages for Sinema in the short term," keeping her from being "ousted by a primary challenger" in a "party where she is largely loathed" if she runs for a second term in 2024. But Arizona is becoming more liberal, and Sinema might find "Arizona is not the centrist utopia Sinema wishes it to be."
We need more people going independent, from the left and the right
Sinema undeniably has "some self-interested reasons" for making this change, says Bret Stephens at The New York Times, but having the Arizona senator join "someone like Maine's Angus King as an independent shows it's at least possible to have an alternative." Yes, it keeps her from getting primaried if she runs in 2024. "But it also reminds the party establishments that they shouldn't take their centrist voters for granted."
But this only gets us so far. "Now I wish a few sane-minded Republicans might go ahead and join her. Lisa Murkowski, hello?" Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen in today's GOP. "The Republican Party is pretty much irredeemable, while the Democrats are … just not the team I'm ever going to bat for."
This changes nothing. Sinema said so.
"Declaring herself an independent might not make a huge difference within the Senate," says Jonathan Bernstein at Bloomberg, if Sinema "continues, as she said she will, voting and behaving the same way on the job." And it's too early to predict how this would affect her re-election odds, if she runs, or how it might boost or hinder any other political plans she might have.
But it's hard to see this being the secret to ushering in a new era of bipartisan compromise. "Sinema should know that compromises are part of legislating. And parties make legislating a lot easier. Parties allow (more-or-less) stable coalitions to work together to get things done." If there were a rush of lawmakers quitting the parties to go it alone, "a legislature could devolve into chaos as assorted factions block different proposals." Who would that help?