They’re also driving people crazy. You can’t lobby or intimidate them because it’s impossible to push or mock someone with that level of confidence. Indifference is the ultimate form of power.
Let’s start with Sinema. Right now, progressives are furious with her for refusing to support the $3.5 trillion social welfare bill (and insisting on passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill that she helped craft first), despite the fact that she overtly ran as an independent-minded Arizonan. Apparently, many of her voters hoped the erstwhile Green Party activist was just posing as an independent during the election.
To try and understand Sinema’s supposed betrayal, some on the left are speculating that she has sold out to political donors. But this ignores the fact that she could just as easily rake in progressive money like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have done. A more plausible (if less sexy) theory is that she is making her political choices first, then accepting money from those willing to finance those choices.
Another theory is that she’s crazy like a fox. Arizona’s status as a purple state (and the fact that Sinema is basically channeling John McCain’s “maverick” streak) support the argument that she is actually being politically sagacious—but that doesn’t mean she isn’t also taking a risk by going against her own tribe. Indeed, if standing up to your own party (as opposed to pandering to the base) is the key to winning elections in the 21st century, it’s a secret that almost nobody else in the modern political world has discovered.
And that means there’s a very real case that these two are not only America’s bravest politicians, but our best ones, trying to forge a path through brutal terrain toward a less polarized future.
Arizona, which Joe Biden carried by the slimmest of margins in 2020, isn’t West Virginia—where Democratic contrarian Joe Manchin has to appeal to voters in a state Donald Trump won by nearly 40 points—and it is very possible that Sinema could lose her job because of her tough stand. A PAC has formed to identify and fund a primary opponent to challenge Sinema from the left. Meanwhile, Sinema has endured an SNL parody, mockery from late night talk show hosts, attacks from progressive lawmakers, a revolt from some former supporters, and furious protesters.
Right or wrong, there are few politicians with the courage to choose to take positions that inspire that level of anger from erstwhile supporters. One of them is Liz Cheney, who as recently as 2016 referred to Hillary Clinton as a “felon” on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and is now being called a “traitor” herself by Republicans after voting to convict Trump at this second impeachment trial.
“You look up into the stands and see your girlfriend on the opposition’s side—that’s one hell of a tough thing to swallow,” one Republican congressman said of Cheney. For her sins, she was ousted from her party’s leadership and Trump is now backing her primary challenger (a candidate who was, until recently, a Trump critic and a Cheney backer). To give you a sense of how courageous Cheney has been, it’s important to note that Trump did even better in Wyoming than in West Virginia, garnering nearly 70 percent of the vote. If Cheney can survive Trump’s onslaught in the Cowboy State, she will make John Wayne look like a patsy.
But hardball political reprisals are fair game. This brings us to physical intimidation, which is not. After voting to impeach Trump, Cheney received death threats that compelled her to spend $58,000 on security in just three months. More recently, Sinema was confronted by a camera-wielding activist who waited outside her stall in an Arizona State University bathroom.
It doesn’t matter who the person is, swarming people in a bathroom isn’t productive and won’t be limited to only the people you think deserve it. We should collectively oppose this form of protest. (Having gotten into arguments with two separate CNN hosts on the same day by defending Ted Cruz against a “mob” that chased him out of a restaurant, I think I’ve been pretty consistent on this issue).
Whether it’s by risking their jobs or their safety and privacy, Cheney and Sinema continue to bravely stand (or sit) firm on principle against mobs in both parties.
If this outrages you, you may prioritize party loyalty, conformity, and putting legislative points on the board over courage and independence. Of course it’s frustrating to work for a cause, think you finally have the votes to get it done, and then see someone who is ostensibly on your team blow it up. But here’s the thing: this isn’t a team sport. Cheney and Sinema were elected by their constituents to exercise their best judgment. They were elected, not you. They have the right to make up their own minds.
Now, I should probably confess that as an anti-Trump conservative, this is easy for me to say; these two women have (currently) landed in my philosophical sweet spot, as Cheney stood up against the MAGA movement while Sinema is (for now, at least) a bulwark against progressive overreach on spending and rewriting the social contract.
But even if you disagree with their politics, it’s just demonstrably true that these two women are gutsy and courageous.
It used to be that people went rogue when they tried to buck their party leadership. That was hard enough. Today, the leadership and grassroots supporters of both parties are in lockstep, which makes stepping out of line an invitation to a two-front war. On the Republican side, others have tried (and failed) to wage this kind of battle. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ civil war is just getting started, so Sinema is the pioneer, taking most of the arrows.
The difference, though, is that Cheney and Sinema are doing it with style and, so far, getting away with it.