The Surge

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

Welcome back to the Surge, a weekly ranking of the most important people aged 80 and above whose health is absolutely critical to the Democratic Party’s agenda! On this fine holiday Friday, the Surge’s royal we represents Slate news blogger Ben Mathis-Lilley, substituting for a vacationing or possibly imprisoned Jim Newell. The newsletter is coming to you later than usual, as it happens, because we forgot that we were supposed to be filling in for Jim until we had already entered what medical professionals refer to as a “garlic knot coma” on Thursday night. It was delicious.

Out there in Political Land, the most consequential news involved something that didn’t happen (a Supreme Court retirement), the second-most involved something that probably won’t happen (Donald Trump going to jail), and much of the rest involved something that unfortunately did happen (the riot at the Capitol) because of something that definitely didn’t (Chinese and/or Democratic ballot fraud and voting machine reprogramming). Also, as always, there was a big story about what Kyrsten Sinema thinks that managed to be provocative without getting anyone any closer to answering the question of what Kyrsten Sinema thinks. And, finally, the Dilbert guy was wrong about Joe Biden killing everybody—or was he?

Let’s start with that Supreme Court justice, who, as of this writing, is, crucially, still a Supreme Court justice and not a soon-to-be-ex-Supreme Court Justice.

Stephen Breyer.
Justice Stephen Breyer. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Erin Schaff/Pool/AFP via Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Stephen Breyer

Still a Supreme Court justice.

What is there to say about the liberal establishment’s judicial personnel strategy that hasn’t already been said about the New York Jets’ winning football games strategy? After ignoring years of suggestions that she should retire so she could be replaced by a Democratic president and Senate, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in 2020 and was replaced instead with a conservative judge who won’t turn 75—the age at which Ginsburg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, only to attempt to serve another 12 years on the court—until the year 2047. Once Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer secured the levers of nominating power, eyes naturally turned to liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, who, being 82 years old, is definitely in the “RBG zone.” Breyer’s eyes, though, appear to have turned to the exciting possibilities of next year’s SCOTUS schedule, given that this year’s term ended Thursday with a 6–3 gutting of the remains of the Voting Rights Act by the court's tactically assembled, unbeatable conservative majority—and without any announcement about Breyer’s future. Democrats in the other branches of government, meanwhile, have stopped talking about reforming or expanding the court despite the very plausible chance of losing their 50-vote Senate “majority” in 2022 and the presidency in 2024.

Rank 2

Last Week

2. Allen Weisselberg

Another guy may be going to jail to protect Donald Trump. What’s the deal with people doing that?

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus “the Virus” Vance achieved what many others before him had failed to do when the Supreme Court ruled that he had the right to obtain Trump’s personal financial records as part of an investigation into potential financial fraud at the Trump Organization. Despite some vague chatter about Trump himself maybe being charged with submitting bogus property valuations for the purposes of tax evasion, though, the only person charged in the tax-fraud indictment Vance rolled out this week was Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg. While Weisselberg may well be in personal trouble, there hasn’t been any reporting indicating that he’s considered becoming a witness against Trump, and there are reasons to believe that Cyrus “the Pants” Vance is unlikely to file significant further charges in the case. Once again, an aging individual appears to have decided they’d rather go to prison than turn on Donald Trump, a notorious narcissist who has demonstrated literally dozens of times during his life that he has no loyalty to anyone. It’s weird, the things some people will do.

Rank 3

Last Week

3. Liz Cheney

Still at it.

Speaking of weird: In the same week that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld died and was widely remembered as one of the most disastrously power hungry and dishonest Americans to ever serve in government, the daughter of his chief collaborator was in the news again for continuing to torpedo her own standing by acknowledging politically inconvenient facts. That would be Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, previously a doctrinaire and Dick Cheney–esque partisan, who’s already been stripped of her role in party leadership because she continues to criticize Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 riot. On Thursday, it was announced that Cheney would be the only Republican joining the House “select committee” that will investigate that day’s events (and those that led up to them). While the MAGA wing of the GOP continues to dominate elections, Cheney’s presence on the committee will give her a platform (and access to subpoena power) with which she can continue to lead the faction of the party whose position is that someone should be held accountable when the dissemination of misinformation gets people killed. Imagine that!

Rank 4

Last Week

4. Ed McBroom

The conscience of a cow man.

Political reporter Tim Alberta maintains good relationships with Republicans who might not speak with other members of the mainstream press. He also happens to be a native of Michigan. This has given him an especially relevant niche since the 2020 election, after which the continuity of American democracy was saved, to an unsettlingly large degree, by the decisions of a handful of Michigan Republicans. On Wednesday, Alberta published a profile of Michigan state Sen. Ed McBroom, a personally and politically conservative farmer from the rural Upper Peninsula who’s been active in local Republican politics for years but concluded, after actually studying the 2020 election in his role leading the state Senate Oversight Committee, that Michigan had been won fairly and squarely by Joe Biden. In response, McBroom was instantly denounced by Trump on personal terms and harassed by so many right-wingers that, in the story, he makes a not entirely implausible aside to Alberta about the possibility that his wife and sister-in-law might have to dip into the family gun cabinet to defend the farm from crazies when he’s away in the capital. This from a guy who, Alberta writes, got into politics in part because he wanted to help pass restrictive abortion laws. All in all, the blowback against figures like Cheney and McBroom is enough to make you wonder whether Mitch McConnell, who purportedly agrees with them behind the scenes, is really ever going to purge Trump’s influence from the party via the strategy of occasionally leaking critical quotes to publications that right-wing Republicans don’t read.

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Jim Clyburn

Out to lunch, but only as a break from golf.

On Thursday, a reporter asked soon-to-be-81-year-old House Majority Whip and South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn if Breyer should retire. Clyburn’s response: “Who am I to tell somebody to retire? … I feel fine. I'm still able to play 18 holes in the morning, 18 holes in the afternoon and have a little libations for lunch.” That’s great for Clyburn, but it’s probably worth pointing out that being able to crush some beers and play golf twice a day is usually a reason men of a Clyburnian age give to explain why they’re quitting their demanding job, not why they’re going to continue holding it. It also misses the point: With some exceptions, the reason 80-plus Democratic leaders are criticized for holding on to power is not that they aren’t robust enough to golf or legislate, but because they’re preventing younger Democrats from developing the profiles and abilities necessary to wield power—and because of the unfortunate reality that one more of them dying before the next election would jeopardize both the caucus’s internal cohesion and its retention of its current, narrow majorities.

Rank 6

Last Week Down from last week #1

6. Kyrsten Sinema

Wasn’t always such a big fan of the number 60.

One week after she was highlighted in the Surge for her latest public defense of the idea that bills should only pass the Senate with the support of a 60-vote supermajority, a progressive group released a 2010 video of Sinema, then an Arizona state legislator, telling an audience that Democrats should 1) pass major laws with 51 votes and 2) ignore centrist senators who put pressure on them to do otherwise. While it’s entirely normal for politicians to change their positions when circumstances (and their constituencies) change, the footage did underscore the absurdity of defending that kind of contingently adopted position, as Sinema does, on the grounds that it’s an historically timeless principle of American politics whose perpetuation is at the core of your identity as an elected official and a citizen.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Scott Adams, the Dilbert guy

He’s alive!

For some reason, Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams also has a career as an online personality who claims his allegedly superior intelligence and expertise in subjects like hypnosis gives him special insight into political and social questions. In practice, he is mostly a regular-issue alarmist right-wing guy who likes Trump, whom he refers to as a fellow “master wizard.” (Master wizard!) Which is why on July 1, 2020, Adams tweeted that “If Biden is elected, there's a good chance you will be dead within the year,” elaborating that “Republicans will be hunted” and “police will stand down.” Other Twitter users took the opportunity this week to note that a year has passed since the prediction without the deployment of Anti-Malarkeyist Death Squads (antima). However, others pointed out that Adams’ forecast could be read to predict mass killings within the year after Biden’s election, not the year after the tweet being sent, which means both that we are all still on the clock but also that it’s not too late to sign up for wizard-hypnosis self-defense classes.