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The Deepening Mystery of Kyrsten Sinema

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Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona said that she’ll sign on to the Democrats’ climate bill—after advocating for a few adjustments that she apparently didn’t care to explain to anyone.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Enigma Wrapped in a Loophole

Democrats were relieved last week when Senator Joe Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that they had reached a deal on sweeping climate legislation. But that relief lasted only about a minute, because pretty soon, there was a holdup: Sinema wasn’t so sure about the bill. Reports told us that it had something to do with getting rid of the carried-interest loophole, which allows hedge-fund managers and others to pay a lower tax rate on certain portions of their income. But the Arizona senator didn’t explain why she might not like that provision in the legislation. “Sinema has apparently never uttered the phrase ‘carried interest’ in a public legislative session,” The New York Times reported.

Yesterday, after more negotiating, the Democrats reached a deal: They stripped out that tax provision and one dealing with accelerated depreciation, which will benefit manufacturers. Then they added both a 1 percent tax on stock buybacks and a few billion dollars in drought funding for the Southwest. Sinema said that she was satisfied, which means the Democrats were too.

But we’re all still confused. The Democrats’ new legislation might actually be more effective than the original in terms of reducing the deficit, and Sinema could make the case for that. She could tell Americans that this was what she was going for all along. She could talk about wanting to get more dollars for drought relief. But she won’t talk with reporters, and she didn’t say anything like that in her vague statement last night.

The senator’s silence has left commentators to fill in the blanks about her motives. “Sinema wielded her extreme political power to demand a tax break for rich Wall Street bros,” Ezra Levin, from the progressive group Indivisible, tweeted last night. “Every day, Kyrsten Sinema gets up and asks herself a simple but important question: How can I help venture capitalists and wealthy private equity managers pay lower tax rates than everyone else?” Matt Fuller from The Daily Beast posted. Even the conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt, who is no fan of the bill, seemed mystified.

Sinema has long cultivated a strange air of mystery, refusing to explain herself to the press or even to her own voters. She’s been a leading obstacle in basically every element of her party’s agenda. She opposed a minimum-wage hike in the COVID-19 relief bill without really explaining why. And she never laid out her qualms with Build Back Better legislation—even after a constituent confronted her in a bathroom. “She doesn’t seem reachable,” one prominent Arizona Democratic activist who campaigned for Sinema told me this spring. “I don’t understand!” Two other Sinema voters, both political independents, told me in January that they didn’t necessarily mind their senator’s opposition to Build Back Better; they just wish they understood it.

All of this confusion has prompted dozens of articles asking things like “What is Kyrsten Sinema’s Deal?” and “What Does Kyrsten Sinema Really Want?” Reporters have called the senator’s views “shrouded” and “enigmatic,” pointing out that even her style “keeps us guessing.” But these are all euphemisms for describing someone who seems to take pride in her lack of transparency. She doesn’t just reject interview requests from national reporters and the Sunday talk-show circuit; she barely does interviews at all—even in her own state! Despite the fact that she is a government employee, paid with public tax dollars.

In her limited public statements of substance, Sinema has articulated that she wants to keep Arizona friendly to businesses. When she gave a floor speech defending her support for keeping the filibuster, she was thoughtful and open (though many in her party were outraged by her stance). But we don’t know much else about what Sinema stands for. She seems to view her base as Arizona moderates and independents, a broad middle section of voters who don’t have strong political views and aren’t demanding much in the way of political change. But Sinema has veered further to the right during her Senate career than seems politically expedient, given that Arizona has elected two Democratic senators and a Democratic president. Maybe Sinema wants to be known for being unknown—an inscrutable leader whose only observable passion seems to be running triathlons. Maybe that’s the vibe—above the fray, indifferent, immune—she’s going for.

The problem, though, is that polls show that Sinema is very unpopular with Arizona Democrats; Republicans actually view her much more positively. And if she runs again in 2024, Republicans aren’t going to be the ones voting for her in a primary. The issue with being an enigma is that eventually people will form their own interpretations of your motives—accurate or not. Being a cipher means allowing people to see exactly what they want. This can work for some politicians. But it is not working for Kyrsten Sinema.

Related:

Additional reporting and editing: Russell Berman


Today’s News
  1. Top diplomats in the United States and Russia said that their governments are ready to negotiate for the release of Brittney Griner, a day after she was sentenced by a Russian court to nine years of imprisonment.
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that job growth in July was better than expected. The unemployment rate is back to its pre-pandemic level.
  3. The Chinese ambassador was called to the White House as tensions escalate following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Follow-up: In 2018, The Atlantic spoke with Pardeep Singh Kaleka, whose father, Satwant Singh Kaleka, was killed in a 2012 mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Today marks 10 years since the shooting.


Dispatches

Evening Read
Jesus in passion play riding on a donkey.
(Passion Play Oberammergau 2022 / Birgit Gudjonsdottir)

How Hitler’s Favorite Passion Play Lost Its Anti-Semitism

By A.J. Goldmann

It would be hard to choose the most Jewish moment in this year’s production of Oberammergau’s Passion Play, the grand spectacle that recounts the story of Jesus Christ’s trial, suffering, and resurrection. Begun in 1634 and performed roughly every 10 years, the play is produced by the inhabitants of this Bavarian village located in the foothills of the Alps. Maybe it was the scene where Jesus holds a Torah scroll aloft and leads the congregation in the “Sh’ma Yisrael,” the Jewish declaration of faith in a single God, or perhaps it was the Last Supper, where Jesus and his apostles recite the traditional prayers over the wine and bread in convincing Hebrew. For me, it would have to be the way that Mary, the Madonna, is greeted in one scene: “How fortunate we are to have our rabbi’s mother with us!”

An audience member might be forgiven for thinking she’s watching a sitcom written by the Coen brothers rather than a play that, for centuries, numbered among modern European history’s most virulently anti-Semitic texts.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Leslie Grace as Batgirl standing on a platform during filming
A photo from the “Batgirl” set. (Wattie Cheung / Camera Press / Redux)

Read. After our critic had twins in 2020 and her brain was “as sludgy as risotto,” her love for reading was revitalized by Nora Ephron’s hysterical novel, Heartburn.

Or try another pick from our list of 12 books to help you rediscover reading.

Watch. Resurrection, a psychological-horror movie with an unforgettable final act, is in theaters and streaming on Shudder and AMC+ today.

Explore our full list of the 10 must-watch indie films of the summer. Or check out two new movies—one streaming on Hulu, the other playing in theaters—that offer sharp critiques of the horrors of being extremely online.

One movie you’ll have to take off your watch list? HBO Max’s Batgirl.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

The results of Arizona’s primary election are finally here: An entire slate of Trump-endorsed “Stop the Steal” candidates are now one election away from political power. But a word of caution: If you’re tallying up Donald Trump’s wins and losses as the sole measure of his influence over the Republican Party, you’re missing the point, as I write in my latest article. Trumpism has moved far beyond the man himself. His legacy isn’t going to be the presidency—it’ll be the ascension of figures such as Kari Lake and Mark Finchem.

— Elaine

P.P.S. Starting Monday, Tom Nichols will be returning to The Daily—this time permanently as the lead writer of the newsletter. Tom, who has been hired as a staff writer, will continue writing Peacefield and also contributing to The Atlantic in print and online. Welcome back, Tom!

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.



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