Kyrsten Sinema is trying to become a John McCain-like ‘maverick,’ but it isn’t going to end well

Senator Kyrsten Sinema walks down a hall of the US Capitol.
Senator Kyrsten Sinema walks down a hall of the US Capitol. Getty
  • Kyrsten Sinema holds the Biden agenda in the palm of her hand.
  • She’s looking to the late John McCain as a model for how she’d like to be seen in Washington.
  • Without putting in the necessary effort, it’s not going to work.
  • Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England and a contributing opinion writer for Insider.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

It’s been frustrating for progressive and establishment Democrats alike to watch Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema repeatedly stymie the Biden agenda. The current back and forth over the president’s reconciliation and infrastructure bills, where the Arizona senator refuses to say what she wants, has made her a temporary darling of the right and only deepened anger against her within her party.

Activists confronted Sinema at a fundraiser on Saturday, in the halls and in the bathroom of Arizona State University on Sunday, on an airplane headed back to DC from Arizona, and in the airport as she de-planed on Monday. The pressure is in response to the senator’s refusal to meet with constituents, activists say, and the fact that she is drawing a hard line in the sand over negotiations on the bill but won’t commit to what, exactly, she’d have changed.

No one knows exactly why Sinema is dancing around the Democratic-led social spending bill, and that uncertainty has cratered her popularity in her home state and shattered her credibility in the caucus. But one theory has some teeth to it: she’s trying to channel former Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who earned a dubious reputation as a fierce independent while in the Senate that he spun into frequent media appearances and fawning coverage.

“She definitely would like for her legacy to be ‘the maverick’ like him,” veteran Arizona political hand Grant Woods said.

McCain’s self-aggrandizing, dramatic “no” vote on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 was clearly the inspiration for Sinema’s similarly flamboyant “no” vote on increasing the minimum wage earlier this year.

There are differences between the Arizona senators – the Washington Post’s Dave Wiegel noted that Sinema’s stubborn silence contrasts with McCain’s verbosity – but Sinema isn’t angling to become McCain. Rather, she’s angling to get the same deferential treatment in Washington, just without the substance.

Spinning McCain into the “maverick”

John McCain was a stock right-wing Republican through his career, but earned a mistaken reputation as a “maverick” for occasionally expressing personal distaste for presidents in his own party while still voting with White House priorities.

The senator cultivated this image after his primary loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 primary, a defeat due in no small part to one of the more racist attacks in recent electoral history, a Karl Rove-masterminded hit in South Carolina implying McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was a mixed-race illegitimate child (the ad’s success is certainly reflective of the GOP base, then and now).

Consigned to the Senate, McCain gave early indications he’d be a swing vote for the president’s agenda and a tough nut to crack – but that never happened in practice. In reality, McCain was the same inoffensive, loyal soldier he had always been for the Republican Party. He had a few moments, such as when he voted against Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 (though they still passed and he’d eventually campaign on making them permanent during his 2008 run for president) – a show of his flair for the dramatic. Otherwise McCain was largely in lockstep with the president, hitting a low of 77% in 2005 and a high of 95% support in 2007, when he was angling for the Republican presidential nomination.

It was much the same during the Trump years. Though McCain’s dramatic “thumbs down” moment during the vote on a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act – one which Sinema tried to replicate, to less positive reaction, on unemployment benefits – stands out as a pivotal moment in his Trump-era career, he still voted with Trump’s priorities 83% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. The ACA repeal was, like Bush’s tax cuts, a moment for McCain to flex his dramatic muscle without substantially opposing Trump’s higher priorities.

But the news media took notice of the occassional theatrics. McCain became a fixture on Sunday shows and a veritable quote machine, ingratiating himself to congressional reporters in the halls of the Senate building in exchange for delivering quotes on almost every news item of the day. The symbiotic, cozy relationship between DC reporters and their sources in the halls of power was seldom as clearly on display as it was with McCain.

Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake reaped the benefits of McCain’s friendliness with the press and reputation as a maverick. The Republican senator, who rode the 2010 Tea Party wave to the upper chamber after serving in the House since 2001, adopted McCain’s rhetorical iconoclasm paired with party line obedience.

Flake expressed his reservations about Trump’s approach to governing, but voted with the president 81% of the time. Though he delayed the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to allow for a toothless FBI investigation, Flake ultimately voted for the judge despite serious allegations of perjury and sexual assault.

Like McCain, Flake had something to offer in exchange for his inflated reputation. Despite the fact that both men were loyal creatures of their party, they were prominently and repeatedly referred to in the media and in establishment Washington as mavericks; Senators willing to push back against the conventional wisdom and come to bipartisan, moderate deals.

The Gen X approach

Sinema wants to bask in the adoration of the DC political and media institutions too, but she doesn’t want to have to do the work. The Democratic senator isn’t interested in glad-handing with the press and the DC establishment, nor corresponding with her own constituents, whom she summarily ignores unless they’re holding a check. Rather, Sinema appears to believe she can earn the same respect and adulation simply by frustrating her party’s agenda.

The senator’s behavior shows that she doesn’t understand the game she’s trying to play. McCain, though hardly the independent voice he portrayed himself as, could at least point to his few votes bucking his party as consistent with his overall views. Sinema doesn’t even have that, as a senior national Democrat told Time’s Charlotte Alter: “McCain, you knew what his values were. You never had to question what his vision was for the country. And you really can’t answer that question for Kyrsten.”

Part of the problem is that what Sinema is doing is completely unclear. Instead of parlaying her position as one of the two linchpins to a reconciliation deal into a heightened profile and more power in the Senate, she inexplicably left town last weekend to attend a fundraiser and teach a course at Arizona State University. It’s unclear what Sinema even wants and she seems unwilling to tell them.

Perhaps what McCain offered to his sycophants in the media isn’t transferable to Generation X. Sinema’s slacker approach to legislating, concentrating more on raising easy money than doing the parts of her job she doesn’t care for – meeting with constituents, for example – is consistent with the worst stereotypes about the MTV Generation.

Ultimately, Sinema may cast a decisive “no” vote on the reconciliation bill without giving much notice or explanation. She’s given every indication that her drive to spike the legislation is stronger than anything she could wrangle out of her fellow lawmakers. If she thinks the return is going to be the same sort of respectability and reputation held by McCain, though, she’s in for a surprise.