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Kyrsten Sinema's bathroom protest was a long time coming

The Kyrsten Sinema of 2003 would have been among the activists protesting her at Arizona State University.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is unhappy that a group of progressive activists followed her into a bathroom over the weekend. In a statement Monday, she said what the activists did was “wholly inappropriate.”

“Yesterday’s behavior was not legitimate protest,” Sinema wrote. Leaving aside that Sinema doesn’t get to set the terms of how her constituents hold her accountable, you know who would have likely applauded those activists’ tactics? A young Kyrsten Sinema, the one who didn’t mind calling out Democrats who are more interested in obtaining power than in using it to advance their values.

During the last few weeks, a tidal wave of ink has been spilled as we all try to figure out, in brief, what Sinema’s deal is. Why is the first-term senator acting as a roadblock to passing President Joe Biden’s agenda? What’s driving her? Political donors’ priorities? A misreading of the Arizona electorate? Is she lining up a lobbying gig after her term ends? Does she have a raging case of McCain Maverick Syndrome?

But the here’s the biggest question of them all: What sparked Sinema’s transformation from a Green Party activist into a centrist who may derail one of the largest, most progressive bills we’re likely to see during Biden’s presidency?

As you might expect, the attempts to find the answer have ranged in quality and prescriptive usefulness. The best of them so far comes from Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy, whose recent profile of Sinema charts her rise through the ranks of Arizona politics and explains how few of her former allies recognize her now.

In her youth, Sinema was part of the antiwar movement ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And at the time, she had no tolerance for Democrats who would support the coming war:

When hawkish and conservative-leaning Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman passed through Tucson during his presidential campaign in 2003, Sinema led a caravan of activists to protest outside his event. “He’s a shame to Democrats,” she told a reporter. “I don’t even know why he’s running. He seems to want to get Republicans voting for him—what kind of strategy is that?”

It’s a valid question, one that has grown only more important 18 years later. It’s also apparently the kind of strategy that would wind up appealing to Sinema just a few years later as she shed her activism for what she’d come to describe as “letting go of the bear and picking up the Buddha.” Translation: Don’t pick fights with people you disagree with; instead, be more chill and open-minded toward your opponents in the interest of enlightened peace.

As a result, it’s hard to imagine Sinema’s 2003 condemnation of Lieberman coming from her mouth today. In the years since then, she has moderated her stances and leaned into a fervid attempt to rebuild the interparty comity that Biden so fondly recalls. When she was in the state Legislature, that meant trying to sway Arizonans against a same-sex marriage ban by highlighting its impact on straight couples. In the Senate, it has meant leveraging the friendships she has built with the likes of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, to win passage of her baby: the $1.9 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate in August.

It’s hard to imagine Sinema’s 2003 condemnation of Lieberman coming from her mouth today.

But the single-minded focus on that bill has her on edge as its fate remains linked to the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill meant to be the cornerstone of Biden’s agenda. Over the weekend, Sinema slammed the House progressives’ delay of a vote on her bill, calling it an "ineffective stunt to gain leverage over a separate proposal." In her desire to eschew “identity politics” and seek broad coalitions, as she advocated for in her 2009 book, “Unite and Conquer,” she’s ironically kneecapping a key part of the coalition that got her elected.

Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, led a coalition of various progressive groups to campaign hard for Sinema and other Democrats in 2018. Her unwillingness to even meet with them has left them feeling duped. “We had more dialogue and communication with Jeff Flake than we do with Kyrsten Sinema now,” LUCHA executive Alex Gomez, referring to the Republican former Arizona senator, told Mother Jones. “We had more dialogue with John McCain than we do now.”

So maybe that’s why it was LUCHA’s members who followed Sinema into an Arizona State University restroom over the weekend, demanding answers on where she stands on immigration and that she back the reconciliation bill.

In the end, though, we’re no closer to understanding what motivates Sinema. We don’t know what she wants from Biden or the Senate leadership in exchange for her vote. And while The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd didn’t come much closer to answering those questions about “the Phoenix Sphinx,” as she dubbed the tight-lipped senator, her column did provide this perfect quote:

“People who want to think they can understand her or get to her, let me tell you, you can’t,” one politico in her circle told me. “It doesn’t work that way with her. She doesn’t think in a linear process, like ‘OK, will this impact my re-election?’ She just beats her own drum. When she leaves in the middle of something and says, ‘I got stuff to do,’ it’s because she has plans. Sometimes, she’s just more interested in training for an Ironman. More power to her, man. It’s like watching a movie.”

If that’s the case, then the film writers really need to work on their character development. Because Sinema’s has taken place largely offscreen. Instead, most attempts to fill in the gaps read like political fan fiction. As the future of the country’s social safety net hangs in the balance, at least one thing about Kyrsten Sinema is exceedingly clear: Her younger self definitely wouldn’t vote for her.