No one followed Sen. Mitch McConnell into the bathroom this week.
I mention this because the Senate minority leader is not only standing athwart the entire Democratic agenda — from voting rights to social spending — but he’s also threatening to tank the economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling.
This is the moment when activists have decided it is a good idea to stalk and harass a female Democratic senator.
Meanwhile, the former president is moving to launch a 2024 Revenge Tour that could land him back in the Oval Office, while his fellow Republicans make it harder to vote and easier to overturn the next election. Fox News hosts embrace racist rhetoric. Every day we learn more about how close this country came to an actual coup, and it’s dawning on observers that we may be in the midst of a rolling constitutional crisis.
And yet, this is the moment when activists have decided it is a good idea to stalk and harass a female Democratic senator.
I suppose I should put this in a more civil way, but this is both stupid and counterproductive.
Granted, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema can be frustrating. She is often inaccessible, notoriously eccentric, frequently uncommunicative and has so far not been open about her position on her party’s $3.5 trillion reconciliation package.
So the frustration is understandable.
But this seems like a good time to remind everyone that irritation is not a strategy, and tactically performative jerkitude is a poor approach to changing hearts, minds or critical legislative votes.
The highlight of the anti-Sinema campaign, of course, was the videotaped scene of her trying to go to the bathroom. “Actually, I am heading out,” she said after teaching a class at Arizona State University, heading to the bathroom.
Activists followed her inside, videotaping her as she entered one of the stalls. Some of the other stalls were already occupied.
On the tape, a male protester loudly demanded that she approve the social spending plan as well as immigration reforms. Toilets were flushing. The activists continued taping as a woman — apparently an innocent civilian — exited a stall.
There was another flush, and they continued taping as Sinema came out and began washing her hands.
The video has been viewed more than 4 million times and won raves from some progressive journos. “Absolutely Confront Kyrsten Sinema Outside Of Her Bathroom Stall,” Jezebel declared.
“It’s no wonder her constituents—who don’t understand what the f--- she’s doing any better than the rest of us—are piping mad,” the website insisted. Plus, what was the alternative?
“And for all the pearl-clutching, few are providing a more effective and safe alternative to what these activists did,” Jezebel wrote.
But that’s nonsense. Sinema, the politician, is fair game, and the ways of confronting her are legion. Write about her. Go on cable TV. Criticize her. Petition her. Threaten primary challenges.
But stay out of the bathroom. This really isn’t that hard.
Even in our polarized times, there is something distinctly offensive about crossing boundaries of privacy.
For the moment, let’s leave aside the questions of taste and decency.
The activists who made the video need to ask themselves two questions: Is their behavior likely to persuade Sinema? And second, will the tactic win more public support for their cause?
Even in our polarized times, there is something distinctly offensive about crossing boundaries of privacy. It is a tactic far more likely to repel public support even as it wins plaudits from the online punditocracy.
Then there is the issue of double standards. Sinema’s bathroom stalkers insist they are somehow entitled to behave this way because their cause is virtuous, but, trust me, that is the justification for every assault on civility. The anti-mask activists who are harassing school members say the same thing.
Jonathan Chait asked a critical question, referencing progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: What percentage of people “defending protesters stalking Sinema in the bathroom would defend it if it were right-wing protesters doing the same to AOC? I'll go with ... [pulls out calculator, punches in some numbers] Zero.”
We know how the people cheering on the harassment of Sinema would feel if "Make America great again" protesters went after Sen. Elizabeth Warren this way. We know the level of outrage they would feel if anti-abortion protesters followed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor into the bathroom.
But this is the thing about norms of civility: They have to be applied consistently. Hypocrisy is not a good look.
And scratching your ideological itch is not a sound tactic.
Much of the activist frustration stems from the fact that Democrats only have 50 members of the Senate and progressives clearly lack a governing majority in either house of Congress.
So here is the reality check. There are only two ways for progressives to achieve their ends: elect more Democrats or progressives so they have a working majority in both the House and the Senate or persuade each and every current Democratic senator to support bills they deem crucial to their agenda.
That includes Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
Sinema’s sphinx-like approach may be maddening, but her presence in the Senate is what gives Democrats control. Take her out and you have Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Here is a quick history lesson: In May 2001, Vermont’s Republican senator, Jim Jeffords, fed up with being called a RINO, or "Republican in name only," announced that he would join the Democrats, giving them control of the upper chamber.
There is no indication that Sinema would consider such a move, but it’s a reminder that every single Democratic senator personally holds control of the Senate — and with it control of every committee and the entire legislative agenda — in their hands.
So Sinema is not merely a swing vote; she is the absolutely essential vote. As they debate how much they want to harass and pummel her, activists need to consider that they don’t just need her vote for reconciliation: They need it for everything.
Without her, nothing gets done.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill would not have passed, and she cast the crucial 50th vote for the budget resolution that made the entire reconciliation debate possible. Time and again, she has been the crucial 50th vote for appointees, from Cabinet members to members of the judiciary. According to the folks at FiveThirtyEight, she is a highly reliable vote for the Biden administration.
If there is a retirement on the Supreme Court, she could cast the decisive vote on Biden’s first nomination. Even if by some chance the filibuster is abolished, Democrats will still need her vote on issues such as voting rights.
So it matters very much whether the campaign of harassment is likely to influence someone who once presided over the Senate wearing a sweater that read, “Dangerous Creature.”
The reality is that the Democratic coalition, not to mention the pro-democracy centrist coalition, will always include people like Sinema. The alternative is a GOP-dominated Congress and a second term for Donald Trump.
She may annoy you, but reject her and you call forth political horrors from the deep.