It sounds bizarre, but a $1,117.40 summer internship at a vineyard in the heart of California wine country may prove the ultimate saga in how Big Money has permanently broken American politics. It was as seen on TV this past week in Washington, where squabbling Democrats and an obstructionist GOP is showing the middle class why we can’t have nice things.
The eager worker who showed up during the coronavirus summer of 2020 was no ordinary summer intern, but a then-44-year-old United States senator: Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. That Sinema (who makes $174,000 a year at her day job) would spend a week picking and maybe stomping on grapes in Napa Valley for some pocket change actually isn’t totally shocking for the Senate’s most iconoclastic member — atheist and bisexual with a defiant openness, and a marathoner with a Ph.D. in justice.
What’s more noteworthy is who was hosting Sinema and paying her four-figure intern salary during that wine-soaked summer: Billionaire Bill Price, who not only owns the Three Sticks winery in Sonoma but also co-founded one of America’s most lucrative private-equity funds, TPG Capital. At the end of her internship, Price did something worth more than his intern’s modest paycheck: He hosted a $5,000-a-ticket fundraiser that benefited both the Arizona senator’s campaign but also a PAC that supports a gaggle of centrist — i.e., anti-progressive — Democrats on Capitol Hill. The Intercept reported that the vineyard fundraiser was a key stop on a Sinema summer 2020 tour that netted campaign cash from Price, his TPG Capital associates, and Silicon Valley legends like billionaire Bill Gates.
Flash forward to the politically fraught autumn of 2021, and Sinema’s opaque obstructionism has become the grapes of wrath for President Biden and their fellow Democrats seeking to invest $350 billion a year to continue child tax credits for the middle class, expand child care, fight climate change and offer free community college. The plan is foundering largely because of vague but obstinate opposition from Sinema and her money-soaked doppelganger Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, when Democrats need all 50 of their senators onboard. Advocates believe the real problem is how Biden and his allies want to pay for this: Largely by raising taxes on Sinema’s filthy rich patrons such as Price and Gates.
This week, with both Biden’s $3.5-trillion-over-10-years “human infrastructure” plan and a smaller but important traditional infrastructure bill (roads, bridges, broadband, etc.) on the brink of possible collapse, activists — including Arizona’s progressives who elected Sinema in 2018 and now regularly protest outside her Phoenix office — desperately wanted to ask their senator what’s going on. Instead, they learned she was at an undisclosed location holding another fundraiser with five business groups that oppose the middle-class boosting legislation.
I’m writing this on the last day of September — once the Democrats’ self-imposed deadline for passing Biden’s ambitious economic agenda — and anything still can happen, maybe even by the time you’re reading this. It’s possible that a deal for a smaller package — one that goes easier on Simema’s private-equity donors or on the planet-destroying coal industry that’s made Manchin a houseboat/yacht sailing millionaire — will be struck. But it’s just as likely, perhaps more so, that this anti-dynamic duo are essentially political suicide bombers waging a jihad for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, blowing up Biden’s presidency, any chance for a Democratic Congress after 2022, and likely even their own careers.
As the Democratic agenda verges on unraveling, thousands of trees have been slaughtered to write lengthy analyses about the mind of the Democratic “moderate” — a mislabeling of these political extremists who do the bidding of 1 Percent millionaires and billionaires over the middle-class voters who elected them. I’ve read tortured explanations of the political strategy behind Sinema’s stranger-than-fiction, lifelong evolution from Green Party anti-capitalist radical to Napa Valley hedge-fund hobnobber. She now sees herself as an independent “maverick” like her home state’s Republican legend, the late Sen. John McCain.
But the reality is that Simema seems to be acting on a political death wish: The Democrats who once supported her are looking to primary her out of office in 2024, and even if she survives that, Republicans who now applaud her anti-progress stance are sure to vote for whatever Trump-fried wackadoodle comes down the pike in the general election. Sinema’s relentless rise to a place where she can single-handedly blow up the nation’s politics seems explained by an easy willingness to chuck any principles for rank, careerist narcissism — and that narcissism is now drawn like the proverbial vampire squid to Big Money.
I think the political pundit class is really overthinking what’s going down in Washington this week. The story of Team Biden’s shrinking ambition in 2021 is the story of American politics since the 1980s: Very rich people and their corporations’ ability to buy off prominent politicians to promote inequality at the expense of a shrinking middle class. It’s taken decades of hard work for progressive-minded activists to knock on millions of doors or raise dollars in $27 chunks from working people to finally assemble a coalition on the brink of 218 House votes and 50 senators plus a vice president to restore some balance for the 99 Percent. But the incumbent plutocrats only need to peel off just one or two votes to keep their warped status quo — which is what they’re doing now.
— One key element of the Democratic/Biden agenda for aiding the middle class — allowing Medicare programs to use their buying clout to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs — appears to be blocked by the firm opposition of 10 so-called “moderate” Democrats who, in a remarkable coincidence, seem to have received large donations from Big Pharma executives and its industry PAC in 2021.
— West Virginia’s Manchin — Sinema’s non-identical twin in blocking most progressive legislation — not only profits personally from his family investments in fossil fuels, but reports have chronicled how he meets regularly with business lobbyists to map out strategy. This includes a boast from a key player at the world’s largest oil giant, Exxon/Mobil, who says the company maintains an open line of communication with Manchin’s staff.
— The leading Democratic roadblock to enacting the entire Biden agenda in the House is New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus which has done nothing but create problems when it comes to economic aid for the middle class. You’ll be shocked, I’m sure, to learn that Gottheimer is also the House’s largest recipient of campaign donations from the private equity industry, with especially close ties to powerful Blackstone Group, a listed client of the lobbying firm that employs Gottheimer’s wife.
None of this is meant to offer a free pass to Republicans, whose pro-business, pro-billionaire policies are embedded in their DNA, and whose burn-it-to-the-ground brand of obstructionism is what forces the Democrats to struggle for the unanimity they need to pass virtually anything. But the fact that narrow, wealthy special interests control a working majority in both houses of Congress is proof that our tolerance for Big Money in American politics is our original sin, and this has been going on for decades now.
In fact, if the two intertwined infrastructure bills implode this autumn, or if the pro-middle-class measure shrinks to the level of triviality, the failure won’t really be on the legislation itself, but rather the failure of Congress to enact a different measure: The For the People Act that aimed to take a whack at money in politics. Although it wouldn’t have eliminated the power of campaign cash altogether, the bill — which narrowly passed the House with only Democratic votes in March — includes several giant steps to clean up our campaign-finance mess, including a ban on untraceable, massive “dark money” donations.
The For the People Act — at least its most progressive, un-neutered version — is going nowhere in the Senate, blocked by a Republican-led filibuster. As a result of this, as well as stalled voting-rights legislation, a growing number of Democrats are willing to break with 200 years of warped precedent and either fully or at least partially kill the filibuster. Again, all 50 Democrats would need to be on board. Again, two of them are rigidly opposed to progress.
Joe Manchin, and Kyrsten Sinema.
Whatever happened in that California vineyard, Sinema is clearly still drunk on her own power, and maybe the power of her new best friends in private equity and in Silicon Valley that she now gets to pal around with. The Arizonan is threatening aid to working-class parents, expanded child care, a free shot at community college, and the war on global warming that’s been burning up her home state, all for a solo performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” that’s 10 times more dramatic than’s Jennifer Holliday’s best work. If Sinema really wants to take her renowned fashion sense to new heights, she should also reach across the aisle to Melania Trump to ask to borrow that stylish jacket: “I really don’t care, do u?”
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