The Surge

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

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, your newsletter ranking who’s “hot,” who’s “not,” and who’s “hospitalized with the delta variant” in the grand game of politics each week.

Every so often here at Surge HQ, a word just seems funny to us for no particular reason, and we make that word our theme of the week. This week, the word is GAMBIT. It was gambits galore this week! Chuck Schumer’s gambit was scheduling. Mitch McConnell’s gambit was the old standby of taking the debt ceiling hostage. Nancy Pelosi’s gambit was vetoing Republican committee assignments. What was your gambit this week? If it was successfully getting triple-dog-dared by a friend into doing a shot of inferno-level hot sauce, your gambit may not have paid off.

Another gambit that may not have paid off: that one the Republican Party did for months where they kind of shrugged about vaccinations.

Ron DeSantis.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Ron DeSantis

The vaccines are good! If you’re like, into vaccines, and stuff.

As the COVID pandemic flares up *again* in the form of the delta variant and spreads wildly in places with large unvaccinated populations, the Republican Party this week had an oh-shit moment. Months of Republican politicians and conservative media personalities playing footsie with, or outright embracing, vaccine skepticism has created a situation in which the party base is cheering anti-vax sentiment at conservative conferences. Ol’ delta is licking its chops. To combat the reemergence, party leaders are kicking up their vaccine outreach a notch. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, for example, finally got his shot and publicized it. (That he hadn’t gotten it already says something about the politics Republicans had allowed to fester.) The GOP Doctors Caucus held an event this week to encourage vaccination. There are signs that even Fox News, a major source of the problem, is coming around; there are also signs that it is not. Rupert Murdoch may need to make a couple more calls. But one of the most notable GOP politicians to encourage vaccination this week was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who correctly noted that the hospitalizations from COVID are now almost entirely among the unvaccinated. That doesn’t mean the mixed signals have completely ended, though, as DeSantis’s campaign is still selling “Don’t Fauci My Florida” merch.

Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #5

2. Chuck Schumer

Gambit No. 1.

Gambit is a word that may only be used to describe a move in chess, an X-Man, or a tactic from a party leader in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s gambit this week was to schedule a vote to open debate on the bipartisan infrastructure package before the infrastructure package was completed. He did so as a way to force negotiators to a conclusion, when in the absence of one they may have been negotiating well into the 2030s. The risk was that this would piss off Republicans enough to send them running from the negotiations, which is only a problem for Schumer insofar as it would profoundly upset the Democratic moderates whose goodwill he needs to maintain. How did the GAMBIT work out? Kind of a wash. The procedural vote failed Wednesday on party lines, but that failed vote doesn’t appear to have marked the end of negotiations. There will likely be a second attempt next week to kick things off, which was all Republicans were asking for. But Schumer’s sense of urgency did, at least, get these negotiators to pick up the pace.

Rank 3

Last Week

3. Nancy Pelosi

Gambit No. 2.

In House resolutions setting up special committees, commissions, blue-ribbon panels, and everything else, there is often a clause suggesting that the speaker shall appoint a certain number of posts “after consultation” with the minority. This is typically just legislative speak for “the minority leader gets X number of picks.” But after Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy submitted his five picks for the new select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, Pelosi wielded her authority to nix two of them: Reps. Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, two stalwart Trump loyalists. Republicans viewed this as a sincere misstep, both for the precedent it sets against letting the minority make its own committee staffing decisions, and for proving their point that this committee is more about politics than discovering the truth. This is one way to think about it. Another is that maybe it will be easier to get to the truth without Jim Jordan on the committee. Putting Jim Jordan on the committee to investigate Jan. 6 is like putting the Hamburglar on the Select Committee to Investigate the Disappearance of Hamburgers. Sometimes what Washington Brain perceives as a gambit is common sense.

Rank 4

Last Week Down from last week #3

4. Mitch McConnell

Gambit No. 3.

Mitch McConnell considers himself a long-term strategist, not a tactician, who sees the whole field years in advance and works carefully toward a masterful endgame known as Mitchtopia, a post-time state of universal harmony that our human brains cannot presently understand. In other words, he would be disgusted that we dare accuse him of engaging in a “gambit,” a low-rent form of maneuvering well beneath him. But the Surge calls it like it is, and what he pulled on the upcoming debt ceiling debate is definitely a gambit. The debt ceiling—an idiotic statute that should be repealed—is due for either an increase or suspension this fall to allow the United States to continue paying its debts, and McConnell said this week that Republicans won’t help with the effort. “I can’t imagine a single Republican in this environment that we’re in now—this free-for-all for taxes and spending—to vote to raise the debt limit,” McConnell told Punchbowl News. “I think the answer is they”—Democrats—"need to put it in the reconciliation bill.” Democrats are allowed under reconciliation rules to increase the debt limit. But, as McConnell knows, they would have to increase it to a certain number; they can’t just suspend it. Setting a number does make some Democrats skittish (if you can believe it!) about the campaign ads that would follow. Democrats have a few options about what to do. They could put an increase in the reconciliation bill, though it’s far from a sure thing that the Big Bill would be done before the debt ceiling needs to be raised. They could also tie it to a short-term government funding bill near the end of September, to put Republicans on the hook for both a debt default and a government shutdown. Could McConnell be bluffing? He could, though he doesn’t often. We don’t know. Does he know? It’s a gambit!

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Peter DeFazio

House Democrats hate the Senate infrastructure bill. Can they do anything about it?

You may notice that when we talk about the infrastructure bill negotiations between Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, and the White House, a certain key legislative body is not mentioned at all: the House of Representatives. Members of the House Democratic majority have noticed this, too, and are beginning to throw fits. Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has already muscled his own “hard” infrastructure bill through the House, and the Senate’s only plan for it is to take it up as a “shell” bill that it will replace with whatever the bipartisan negotiators agree to. In a leaked call this week, DeFazio trashed the Senate framework and said that the “whole thing falling apart is probably the best thing.” Other House Democrats are warning that their votes to swallow the Senate bill whole can’t be taken for granted. But recent legislative history is littered with examples of House members swearing up and down that they can’t be jammed … and then being successfully jammed a few seconds later. If Senate negotiators come up with something on infrastructure that can get through their chamber’s delicate process, and President Joe Biden throws his full weight behind it, it becomes very, very difficult for the House members of that president’s party to reject it.

Rank 6

Last Week Down from last week #4

6. Joe Biden

So where are we on voting rights again?

It’s not just congressional Democrats, who’ve pledged that “failure is not an option” on voting rights legislation but have no plan to avert failure as the only apparent option at this point. The White House strategy is baffling, too. Just last week, Biden gave a speech in which he called the present challenges to voting rights “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” But during a CNN town hall this week, he wouldn’t even lend his personal support for one of the key elements to passing voting rights legislation: ditching the Senate filibuster. He said that in doing so, “you’re going to throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done.” Here he was alluding to McConnell’s threats of retaliation should Democrats eliminate the filibuster. White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in a briefing the next day, similarly mentioned that “there are some in the Senate who have said they would halt all business if that conversation were to happen.” So that’s where the White House is right now: Getting voting rights reform done is essential to fighting off the greatest threat to democracy since the Civil War, but alas, Mitch McConnell might deploy some parliamentary tricks if they did. It’s time for the Democrats in the White House, and in Congress, to come clean. Do they not think the current voting rights threats are as big a deal as activists and outside groups make them out to be? Is that the issue here? Because the action isn’t matching the rhetoric.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Elizabeth MacDonough

Fight of the century: the Hammer vs. the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill

Oh, the things Democrats are talking about putting in their planned $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. It’s not just the stuff from Biden’s jobs and families plans that he can’t get through bipartisan regular order. They’re talking immigration reform. They’re talking voting rights and election reform. They’re talking the PRO Act. Basically, whatever elements of their agenda they haven’t gotten done yet, they’re going to try to toss into the Big Bill and retrofit it within the budget reconciliation process’s narrow tax-and-spending strictures. We’d call it a gambit, but we’re already done with the gambit section of the newsletter. It will, though, be a season for the ages for Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth “the Hammer” MacDonough, who determines compliance with reconciliation rules and eats dead legislative dreams for breakfast. You know she’ll be ready. When senators are home for August recess, she’ll be doing 400-pound curls, getting ready to smash that custom-made stamp that says “MERELY INCIDENTAL BUDGET EFFECTS” on all the paper Democrats send her way.