The Surge

Slate’s guide to the most important figures in politics this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, Slate’s weekly politics newsletter ranking politicians doing stuff and saying stuff and… Sorry, we’re distracted. Doesn’t this new hard seltzer branding sound a little derivative?

This week, President Joe Biden announced he would end America’s longest-running war. Can he take out Saturday Night Live next? Mitch McConnell’s Senate Republicans are standing firm against corporate tax increases to their apparent political detriment, a memorable kook from the Trump era is poising himself to take over the House’s most prized committee, Jerry Nadler wants to skip the whole “study Supreme Court reform” part and skip right to putting four new antifa justices on it, and Major Biden is being sent off to dog rehab. There’s a strong chance that Matt Gaetz will be in worse shape when you read this than he was when we wrote it.

But first, let’s devote a bit of attention to the less-discussed half of Senate Democrats’ right-most flank.

Kyrsten Sinema.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for JDRF.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Kyrsten Sinema

The true top centrist?

We spend so much time dwelling on Joe Manchin as the rightward pole in the Senate Democratic caucus. Manchin Manchin Manchin! There’s good reason for that. He is often, as we’ve seen in amendment votes, the one Democratic most willing to side with Republicans. He’s also the one Senate Democrat who hasn’t co-sponsored S.1., the For the People Act. On the filibuster, though, it might be his partner in centrism-ing, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who’s more immovable. One reason that Sinema doesn’t get as much attention as Manchin is that she, unlike he, is capable of not holding a 10-minute conversation any time a reporter asks her any question. There’s less to work with. That makes what she does say all the more important to pay close attention to. And she has not shown any interest in amending the Senate’s 60-vote rule—that’s not quite true; she wants to restore the filibuster on executive and judicial nominations—and has ruled out the possibility of showing interest in the future. Over the most recent recess, she said that the solution to the broken Senate is not to change the rules but “for senators to change their behavior.” Sinema is working on border legislation with Sen. John Cornyn and is expected to drop bipartisan minimum wage legislation with Sen. Mitt Romney soon. Republicans love her. LOVE her. As Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told Politico, Sinema’s frequent filibuster defenses “reinforce how valuable that is to the institution but also, obviously, to us as Republicans.” Ha-ha obviously yes!

Rank 2

Last Week

2. Joe Biden

No more Afghanistan war? Where are America’s toddlers supposed to fight when they grow up?

When Biden was the new vice president in 2009, he advised President Barack Obama that it was not uncommon for generals to try to take advantage of a new, inexperienced president to pursue their ends. He advised Obama against surging troops to Afghanistan but lost that argument. Obama couldn’t end America’s longest war, and neither could Trump. But this week, Biden announced his plan to end American troops’ presence in Afghanistan. Speaking from the Treaty Room this week—right where President George W. Bush first announced operations against the Taliban in 2001—Biden said that all American troops would be out of Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11, without any caveat that the withdrawal be “conditions-based.” Biden’s remarks announcing the move were remarkable to hear from a president, as he directly dismissed the common justifications for extending the mission. “So when will it be the right moment to leave?” he asked rhetorically. “One more year, two more years, 10 more years? Ten, 20, 30 billion dollars more above the trillion we’ve already spent? ‘Not now’—that’s how we got here.” The decision is earning him plenty of blowback, and not just from Republican hawks. But he made a promise to end “forever wars” during the campaign. Well, one down.

Rank 3

Last Week

3. Mitch McConnell

Defending corporate tax rates, and for what?

As we know, Republicans are now a subversive, edgy, anti-corporate party that wants to stick it to those stuffed shirts in the C-suite who think “people” should be allowed to “vote.” Where Republicans draw the line on their pushback against corporate America, though, is in supporting any policy that could marginally hurt the bottom line of any corporation. As Republicans and Democrats on the Hill began talking this week to see if they could find common ground on infrastructure, Republicans were resolute on one point: Undoing any of the business tax cuts from their signature 2017 tax law, as an infrastructure pay-for, would make for a total nonstarter. The leather jacket–clad Fonz of these anti-corporate misfits, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said he did not think there would be “any” Republicans who would vote to undo parts of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It makes perfect sense that Republicans in Congress wouldn’t want to undo their beloved tax law. That doesn’t make it a good message, though. A Morning Consult poll this week found that 57 percent of voters supported Biden’s infrastructure plan. When asked about funding it via “15 years of higher taxes on corporations,” though, 62 percent of voters supported it. In other words, voters don’t see increased corporate taxes as a merely acceptable trade-off to pay for infrastructure—they see it as a value-add to the package. Maybe some Republicans, recognizing the rage coming from their base against “woke capitalism,” will recognize that dying on the hill of a 4 percentage point corporate tax increase isn’t worth it. Maybe some already are.

Rank 4

Last Week

4. Jerry Nadler

Who’s ready for cOuRt-PaCkInG? Uh, well, some Democrats.

Last week, Biden fulfilled a campaign pledge to create a commission of experts to study and make recommendations on Supreme Court reform. According to the White House release, “the topics it will examine include the genesis of the reform debate; the Court’s role in the Constitutional system; the length of service and turnover of justices on the Court; the membership and size of the Court; and the Court’s case selection, rules, and practices.” Court reform is a touchy subject—and adding justices to the court is outright unpopular—so the administration either wants to build an expert case before pursuing a path, or wants to punt the issue indefinitely. This week, however, a group of House Democrats, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, as well as Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey unveiled legislation in a press conference outside the Supreme Court to increase the number of SCOTUS justices by four. To give you a hint of how Republicans view the politics of this, McConnell’s team was tweeting out links to live footage of the press conference. And to give you a hint of how Democratic leaders view the politics of this, Nancy Pelosi’s response when asked whether she supported the bill was a direct “no,” and that she had no plans to bring it to the floor. Democrats have seen better message-coordination days.

Rank 5

Last Week Up from last week #7

5. Matt Gaetz

This entry will be dated by the time you read it.

A little peek behind the curtain here at Surge Enterprises Inc. We usually finish the final product around 6 p.m. on Thursday evening, and then it gets sent to the internet printer for delivery the next morning. What’s been happening the past couple of weeks, though, is that around 6:01, after putting to bed our Rep. Matt Gaetz entry for the week, a new story comes out along the lines of Here Are Many Internet Transactions Where Matt Gaetz’s Money Ultimately Arrives in the Bank Accounts of Teenage Girls. The situation for Gaetz, who’s under federal investigation for potential sex-trafficking violations, is deteriorating by the minute, and this week we learned that his wingman, who’s been under indictment since last year, has been cooperating with the feds. No one’s coming to his rescue, including Donald Trump, who reportedly denied him an audience. If past is prologue, things will somehow be even more grim by the time you read this.

Rank 6

Last Week

6. Major Biden

What are the federal rules on involuntary commitment?

Is it so much for Major Biden (the dog) to ask that after a long day at the office, he have a little “nip” of human flesh to calm the nerves? Apparently. To recap: Major, the Bidens’ 3-year-old rescue German shepherd, moved into the White House and promptly bit someone. We didn’t see this as a power move any different from, say, Lyndon Johnson pooping in front of the people he met with. (Major may have done this, too.) Unfortunately for Major, it’s not 1966 anymore, and you can’t just bite and poop as you see fit. He was sent back to Delaware for some training, but when he returned to the White House, he “nipped” yet another person on White House grounds. Now the White House has announced that Major will be sent off campus again for some professional training expected to last about three weeks. Major: You’ve just got to fake it for a few weeks. Tell the shrinks whatever they want to hear, spit out the pills, throw in some sob stories about Mother. There’s light at the end of the tunnel: The Bidens are expected to get a cat soon, for Major to eat.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Devin Nunes

A charmed life.

You may recall California Rep. Devin Nunes as the top House Republican on the Intelligence Committee during the Trump administration, a period during which he became one of the most scowling, conspiratorial, litigious, and flat-out bizarre members of the body. Trump doesn’t give the Presidential Medal of Freedom to normal members of Congress, after all. His stewardship of Intel, historically one of the more serious, least theatrical committees, must have seemed bizarre: How did he even land that? But Nunes, while always conservative, wasn’t always quite so kooky. He was a reliable vote for party leadership and developed a strong alliance with ex-Speaker John Boehner, whom he supported against the radicals in the Freedom Caucus—or “lemmings with suicide vests,” as Nunes once famously called them. That loyalty to leadership and knack for useful friendships landed Nunes on plum committees through which he’s risen in the ranks. Members usually have a choice to make about whether they want to be (a) crazy or (b) on good committees. But, with Texas Rep. Kevin Brady term-limited out from his top committee perch and retiring from Congress, and with Republicans in good position to retake the House in the midterms, there’s an excellent chance that come this time in 2023, Devin Nunes will get to be crazy and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, possibly the most prestigious chairmanship in the House—and one that comes with subpoena power. Most people can’t have it all. But most people aren’t Devin Nunes.