America needs political waverers like Sinema and Manchin

US Politics: For both senators, the basis of their opposition matters less than the fact of it

In her 2009 treatise, Unite and Conquer, Kyrsten Sinema suggests "letting go of the bear and picking up the Buddha". An English translation, which is yet to appear, would render this as something like "spurning tribalism for co-operation". Her overtures to Republicans come from a "place of peace". The now senator for Arizona burbles on like this for almost 200 pages.

Faced with her vision of politics, most Democrats come from a place of nausea. Bipartisanship, after all, is not an end in itself. The middle view on a subject is not always wise. With a rare chance to grow America's welfare state, the party is blocked by Sinema and the yet more Republican-friendly Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

F Scott Fitzgerald defined a first-rate mind as one that can hold opposing ideas at the same time. To pass his test, the Democratic party has to accept that "Sinemanchin" are wrong, that their obstinacy could scupper Joe Biden's presidency – and that the United States needs them regardless.

First to their wrongness. Sinema tends not to name her objections to the Build Back Better bill. Manchin is a tad less cagey but no more persuasive. He wants bespoke help for the poor, not an “entitlement society” of universal largesse. The inference is that free childcare and community colleges, among other Biden plans, fall into the second trap.


Even on its own centrist terms, this line is perverse. The social programmes with cross-party backing, such as Medicare, are open to almost all. The least popular, namely welfare, are means-tested. As in Britain, where tax credits are easy game but the NHS untouchable, it is the universal state that has right-wing buy-in. Most Republican voters would rather raise taxes than cut federal entitlements. As such, Manchin's is a strange kind of bipartisanship.

Democratic grievances with the two senators don’t end there. Public debt, or what Manchin calls “fiscal insanity”, is real. But it was he and Sinema who opposed bigger tax rises. Then there is that almost regal hesitation to be drawn on specifics. It is hard to avoid the thought that, for both senators, the basis of their opposition matters less than the fact of it. Bucking a Democratic president is what sells in a deep red state (West Virginia) and parts of a purple one (Arizona). How it is achieved is secondary.

The case against the pair would be unanswerable, in fact, were it not for one thing. In a riven nation, it just happens to be all that matters.

Democrats are right that Sinema and Manchin are relics

One thread holding the US together is the existence of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. If all they do is humanise and demystify their parties for opposition voters, it is a public service like no other. Their views on policy pale next to their civilising role in the wider system. Sinema and Manchin are emissaries to Red America. Susan Collins and Charlie Baker do the same for the GOP in liberal New England. It is a mark of civic rot that I could name all such transgressive figures without testing this column's word limit.

There are 19 "blue dog" Democrats in the House of Representatives. More than 50 were elected in 2008. That year will also be the last in which a Republican presidential hopeful is as pro-immigration, or as gracious towards Barack Obama, as John McCain. A once-normal heterodoxy (Nelson Rockefeller, metro-Republican, made it to vice-president) has become career-ending. What the parties have gained in coherence, the country has lost in civic peace.

Sinema is an – maybe the – enigma in US politics. Green peacenik to blue dog in 15 years, her intellectual odyssey has outpaced even her material rise. (It is disputed whether there was running water in her childhood home.) Raised as a Mormon, she is now the one member of Congress with no professed religion.

To be so protean is to arouse mistrust. But politics has enough people who find their tribe around the age of 18 and call off the search. It is the changelings and waverers who act as nodes between the two Americas, or who recognise how many more there really are.

Democrats are right that she and Manchin are relics. Each recalls a time when it wasn’t possible to guess someone’s region, accent, education, tastes or even opinions from the fact of their party registration. The independence that allows them to win red states, however, is the independence that chokes Build Back Better. The Democrats (would they prefer a Republican Senate?) win from the trade-off. So does a country whose trend to ever purer parties evokes the enrichment of fissile material. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021