Joe Biden may be president, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) may be in charge of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may be leading the House. But, as everyone knows, the most powerful people in Washington this fall are Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Thanks to a pair of recent profiles, we now have a better sense of what makes each of them tick — and the core difference between them.
As The Washington Post's reporting shows, Manchin is mainly motivated by a cluster of beliefs that place him at roughly equal distance from the populist right and the progressive left. He's a genuine conservative liberal who opposes the anti-government agenda of Republicans while also insisting Washington should step back if private enterprise can instead step in to help those in need. That's a vision of government more expansive than most Republicans will accept, but much less generous than left-leaning Democrats would prefer. As Matthew Yglesias suggested in a Substack post earlier this week, this makes Manchin a prime candidate to bolt the Democratic Party and form a "Center Party," perhaps with other cross-pressured senators like Montana's Jon Tester (D), Utah's Mitt Romney (R), Alaska's Lisa Murkowski (R), and Maine's Susan Collins (R).
Sinema, on the other hand, appears to be a pure political triangulator. She seems most interested in positioning herself as a Democrat who consistently screws Democrats — with the ultimate goal enhancing her personal power and career. At least, that's how she comes off in Politico's profile. Sinema's model, she claims, is the late Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), who earned a reputation as a truth-talking, straight-shooting maverick for regularly breaking from GOP orthodoxy. But the comparison is unfair to McCain, who was a loyal partisan most of the time and only occasionally caused problems for his caucus. Sinema, by contrast, appears to delight in gumming up the works, perhaps for its own sake — or for the sake of keeping herself in the spotlight.
That contrast might make Manchin sound more admirable, but in the end it doesn't really matter. Until the Democrats can expand their millimeter-wide majorities in Congress, they have no choice but to bow to the demands of both pols. Their motives may differ, but the result is the same.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstated Sen. Tester's party affiliation. It has been corrected. We regret the error.