Are Sinema and Manchin the Democratic party’s past or its future?

Money plays an obscenely large role in American politics. It is not unusual for politicians with a reforming agenda to get elected to Congress and then get seduced by the big money interests that lobby heavily in Washington. Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic senator from Arizona, perhaps holds the record for the speed with which she abandoned the policies that appealed to the people who elected her and became a tool of the plutocrats and corporations. She was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2012 as a progressive and then was elected to the senate in 2018 and it was hoped that she would help wrest control of that reactionary body from the Republicans. But it has become increasingly clear during the recent discussions on the infrastructure bills that she has abandoned any progressive agenda that she might have once had. I recounted her political transformation back in March.

Ryan Grim follows the money and says that the patterns of fundraising by politicians shows that Sinema is living in a world that has moved on and that she is increasingly out of step with it. He begins by tracing how Democrats reacted to being outspent on TV advertising by Republicans in the 1980 elections. That election shook them up and they quickly started chasing big money interests because before it, Democrats had thought that TV advertising was a waste of money.

When that turned out not to be the case, Democrats realized that they needed comparable money of their own, and the fundraising idea was that since Democrats still had durable control of the House of Representatives — they could cling to it for 14 years after Reagan’s 1980 election — businesses that had interests before Congress needed to start ponying up for access.

Access quickly turned to alliance, and the party drifted heavily in a pro-business direction. These “New Democrats” argued that the party had to beat back the power of special interests — and by special interests, they meant civil rights advocates, environmentalists, and labor unions. The presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1988 pushed back against this hegemonic approach, but without a way to aggregate grassroots enthusiasm into the money needed for a national infrastructure, the threat was neutralized. Starting with Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race, it finally started to look possible that a candidate funded by a large number of small, individual donations could compete with one funded by the rich and corporations. Technology was making it possible for people to quickly translate their enthusiasm not just into a honk and wave on a highway overpass, but also into actual money.

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama showed the promise of small dollars in 2008, but he also raised an insane amount of money from Wall Street — and, once in office, he abandoned the network of small donors he had built and went with the big money. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., nearly toppled the Clinton machine with his famous $27 contributions. In 2018, the small-donor revolution spread to normie Democrats, with anti-Trump, #Resistance liberals throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at congressional Democrats, enabling them to retake the House. In 2020, small donors did it again, and the resource-rich Democrats took both the House and Senate.

Grim says that even senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has noticed how small money donors have been key to giving him the senate majority, which is why he is no longer as slavishly servile to Wall Street (he is known as ‘Wall Street Chuck’) as he once was. But Sinema is still working on the old model and it may cost her. Joe Manchin who is pursuing a similar agenda to Sinema is protected from a progressive challenge because he is from a state that Trump won by 40 points. But Arizona is different. Trump lost there and Sinema’s fellow Democratic senator from that state Mark Kelly has had no trouble supporting progressive policies.

She and Manchin are both up for re-election in 2024 but Sinema is the one who could be in real trouble. The 2022 mid-term elections will be what people will be watching to see what the electoral trend is.

Trevor Noah walks us through Sinema’s rapid transformation in views.


  1. garnetstar says

    I’ve always wondered, and more so lately—what do they spend the money on? For a campaign, I mean.

    There is traveling around holding rallies, etc. That must be a lot. The “microtargeting” online, sending everyone a personalized invitation to vote, and keeping track of polls, and tons of operatives. But, do you really think that advertising--I suppose TV ads, and online--does that much? These days people read what’s in their personal information bubble, then go and vote for anyone who has D or R next to their name (I must confess, lately I have sometimes done that.)

    Maybe I’m not as aware of the power of advertising as I should be. I know that *so much* of getting a vote is simple name recognition (that’s really why Biden was up in the polls before the primary last year). So, perhaps just repeating one’s name over and over helps a lot.

  2. flex says

    @garnetstar, #1,

    While I’ve never worked on large campaigns, while I was an elected official I did see how a few state-level campaigns operated. My impression is that campaigns spend money foolishly when they hire professional campaign consultants to manage their campaigns.

    There is a whole election campaign industry; which includes image consultants, media consultants, and all their staff. A lot of the campaign money raised goes to them. More of it goes to the things these consultants produce, i.e. flyers, television and radio spots, newspaper adds, media releases, etc. The accounting of how that money is spent is also done by members of the professional campaign consultant teams.

    The really big campaign consultant companies charge lots of money, millions, for their services. My impression is that most of them are partnership corporations, like law offices, where the top few partners rake off most of the dough and the rest of the employees do fairly well but don’t get rich from it until they are made partners. But I really don’t know if that’s how they are structured, that’s just my impression.

    I doubt they are particularly worried about penny-pinching because they know how much cash is in the barrel, and how much cash is coming in. They also know that while the cash can be saved for other campaigns it cannot be given to the candidate when the campaign is over. Nor can the money be used (legally) for personal expenditures by the candidate (there are exceptions). So, the firms might as well spend anything above what they are using themselves, even if the results won’t justify the expense.

    Do the candidates care? They don’t seem to. They know they can’t use the money for anything aside from campaigning, so as long as their consultants show them they have enough money for the next campaign if the consultants raise their fees to cover the excess money coming in, why would they care? I would think they should, because the consultants raise the money against the candidates name recognition and reputation, but there may even be contractual agreements restricting what the candidates can do. I don’t think many politicians are that savvy about contracts.

    I may be cynical, but I feel the rise of the continual campaign has corresponded to the increased use of professional campaign consultants. I suspect the continuous demands for donations we see these days mainly pays the wages of the campaign consultants who are making the demands. Nice work if you can get it.

  3. mnb0 says

    “But it has become increasingly clear …..”
    Let me repeat: in the USA it’s only worth voting for candidates who refuse big money.

  4. garnetstar says

    Thanks, flex @3. The “consultants”. Yeah, they can just of a consultant for everything. And, “image” consultants? I suppose that’s your clothes and hair, which was already set anyway. Seems like they’re throwing a lot of money away, and, as you say, whether it gets them votes or not is not a matter of concern.

    But then, why do they cater to big donors that much? Do they think they just have to have lots of money in case the consultant firm thinks of another consultant they should hire? Why is donation to their campaigns everything to them?

    When Romney made his notorious 47% speech, he didn’t go around and introduce himself to all the staff at the venue. A bartender had apparently worked a similar event where Bill Clinton spoke, and he’d gone around the entire place and said hi and posed for photos and signatures, etc. I’ll bet Clinton got more votes out of that than all his media consultants’ ads.

  5. says

    The US’ bicameral house was set up so that the senate is able to control an excess of popular opinion. What is happening right now is a demonstration of exactly the kind of “minority rule” system that was embedded in the structure of government from the beginning, for exactly this purpose. In other words, it is the past and the future.

  6. flex says

    @5 garnetstar,

    I’m no expert, not having worked on a campaign which used consultants. Aside from my own campaigning, which was mainly knocking on doors for three months (~6000 residences of ~7500 total in the municipality I represented, it was a lot of walking), I worked on campaigns for a state-level representative who never used consultants.

    You are right in how to get votes. A candidate who makes things personal for the voter will create a bond with that voter. There are a lot of ways to make a voter think the candidate is personally concerned with them. Many politicians will ‘work a room’ like Clinton did. Not only will that help get the people in the room to vote for the candidate, it also has a diminishing but real affect on the friends and relatives of those people. That is, because Clinton worked the room, some waitstaff may have decided to vote for Clinton, but those waitstaff would become messengers to other people about how nice Clinton was, getting more votes. Hillary Clinton didn’t have that skill. She would have been a good president, but she couldn’t work a room. Trump, however, has formed such a strong personal bond with so many voters that they are more loyal to him than his party. Trump made that bond by indicating that he shares the same bigoted and simplistic view of the world as they do, and maybe he does. It will likely take either the death of Trump or his voters to break that bond. It seems as strong as the bond certain voters had with William Jennings Bryan a century ago.

    Image consultants are not just clothes and hair. While they are concerned with appearances, they also look at how the media is portraying the candidate. If something is playing well in the media, they’ll tell the candidate to repeat it. If something goes sour, they’ll tell the candidate to stop doing it. And they also try to burnish websites, wikipedia entries, etc. A large national campaign can employ several image consultants, who are distinct from press agents who send the notices to media about what the candidate eats for breakfast and what their perfect day is.

    The thing is, I think most national level politicians, who hire permanent campaign consultants, are not really campaigning all the time. They have hired their consultants to campaign all the time. And the consultants will gladly do so because that’s how they get paid. The politicians do make media appearances scripted by their campaign consultants, and they do that throughout their term of office. But they are not the ones writing the e-mails, sending the donation letters. They have hired people to perform those tasks. I don’t doubt that they have a daily briefing about what the next demand for money is, but they probably don’t realize how little the campaign consultants really help. Who is going to tell them?

    But think of what the campaign consultant does. They arrange for donations, and the people who donate large amounts like to meet the candidates/politicians personally. And the candidate typically doesn’t mind, after all, their campaign manager tells them they need the money, and this is how they get it. Further, a meeting with a large donor is usually someplace nice, like a good restaurant or club. And the candidate/politician doesn’t pay for it, the campaign does. So it’s a nice night out. But there is a side affect to this, without any quid pro quo, the candidate/politician feels somewhat grateful for the donation and because the meeting takes place in a location with power and status, the candidate/politician gives a certain level of respect to that donor which they would not give to a person donating $10. That respect translates into a willingness to listen, and a willingness to believe the arguments made by the big money donor.

    Politicians are not bought by handing them gobs of cash (well…, some are). They are influenced by constant exposure to people they are asked to show respect for by the surroundings they meet those people in and their campaign manager. That little bit of an edge is all that is needed to make the candidate/politician listen to their arguments favorably.

    As for Sinema, I think she’s just gotten in over her head. I suspect she has been surrounded by people, and has been for some time, who have been giving her reasons look unfavorably at legislation which might hurt the big donors. There are some very plausible arguments as to why taxing wealthy people will hurt the poor people, or why providing benefits to the working class is taking away their freedoms. And if they are given to her by people with Phd’s in economics, or from prestigious sounding think-tanks, I don’t think she has enough trust in her own feeling of what is right to tell them they are full of crap. And if her campaign manager is telling her that the only way she can win re-election is to respect and accept money from the big money donors, there is a huge incentive to agree with them. She hasn’t learned how to say ‘No’ to privilege.

    The fact that she is not appearing much in public could be an indication that she just wants this to blow over, that she knows she will anger people no matter which way she votes. I don’t feel any pity for her; she chose this path. If she doesn’t like where it led she can quit and live the rest of her life comfortably. That’s more than can be said for most people in the USA.

  7. flex says

    Mano, and others,

    Please realize I’m not an expert in this area, and some of my understanding is more speculation rather than from direct exposure.

    But I do not believe that anyone is motivated by evil, but I do think there is a lot of greed, laziness, and incompetence. I seriously doubt that campaign consultants are worth the money they charge, but at the same time there is no way a politician is capable of managing a national campaign on their own. I spent 12 years, and was elected three times, to local government. And I saw inside a few larger campaigns, but I have not gone through that process myself so there is undoubtedly a lot I don’t know.

    Is it a problem that campaigns hire permanent consultants? I don’t really know. There are a few things I think are troublesome. First, if candidate/politician schedules are handled by their consultants rather then themselves, the candidate/politician can quickly loose touch with their constituents. They will only meet them from across podium, which won’t give them any idea of what their constituents want. But I don’t know that this problem is any different than before politicians had permanent consultants, only more widespread.

    Second, I think the continual request for donations is off-putting. And I think the candidates/politicians are starting to know it. For example, I recently received a letter from Pelosi’s campaign which said on the envelope, ‘Survey Only -- No Request for Donations’. So I took a look, it was an on-line survey which ended by asking for money. I was going to leave a message at Pelosi’s office to point out that their literature was lying and voters hate that. But to leave a message I needed to enter a zip code. Since I’m not in Pelosi’s district, I was told I would be unable to leave a message because I don’t live in her district. So, I’m not allowed to send a message to her office, but I am viewed as a possible source of cash? I’m sorry, I see that as incredibly patronizing. My only value to them is as a dupe who will send money on request. So I don’t. And I’m certain I’m not alone. Ultimately, this example is Pelosi’s fault, it is done in her name, but I’m also certain that it was her campaign consultants who talked her into it. Greed and laziness, laziness and greed.

  8. garnetstar says

    flex, thanks again! I think you have quite a penetrating perspective, although you haven’t been on the national campaign level.

    “They have hired their consultants to campaign all the time.” Frankly, now I think of it, that’s worth it. I would probably do anything to avoid the tedium of having to campaign. I’d probably prefer to hire someone to legislate for me too! So, OK.

    And then, you do point out a lot of the other benefits of consultants, and, especially, the real reason that candidates like big donors: as you discuss, that it’s not necessarily money. I guess that’s our system!

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