The Surge

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

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, which faced an excruciating decision between including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Nicki Minaj. Just kidding, it was in no way a difficult decision.

In addition to discussing Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s testicles, we look at Democrats’ signature “Build Back Better” bill in Congress as special interest groups begin to chisel it down. On the congressional front of things that absolutely need to happen to prevent a global economic meltdown and the collapse of the dollar, it’s not clear how Congress finds the votes to raise the debt ceiling. We encourage you to only invest in ancient stores of value (meth). And Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, in trying to prove that someone else is senile, posed a series of nonsense questions to the secretary of state about “the mute button.”

But first, let’s look at Democrats’ final celebratory election night of the next 10 years!

Gavin Newsom.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

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1. Gavin Newsom

Some tips for Democrats in 2022.

The California governor handily survived a recall election this week, with “no” leading “yes” on the recall question by 28 percentage points as we write, with 75 percent of ballots counted. Newsom’s resounding success offers a few tips for Democrats heading into the nervy 2022 environment. First, as Newsom said following his win, Democrats should “stiffen our spines and lean in to keeping people safe and healthy,” pointing out that COVID prevention measures were popular among both the Democratic base and recent suburban converts Democrats are trying to hold onto. Second, Democrats need to absolutely hammer the mini-Trumpers they’re running against, as Newsom successfully did by training his fire on his main Republican competitor, right-wing talk radio host Larry Elder. Here’s the big lesson, though, for Democrats coming out of the California recall: What you want to do is represent a 2-to-1 Democratic state. The more of those Democratic voters you have, the easier it is for a Democrat to win. All these Democratic candidates grinding their gears in Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, etc., about how to survive a tough midterm environment? Just make it so that there are many, many more Democrats than there presently are, and then sit back and watch the W’s trickle in.

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2. Mitch McConnell

Prepare to breach.

Now let’s turn to what’s goin’ on in Washingt—oh God. The debt ceiling. Congress will have to raise or suspend the federal borrowing limit this fall before it runs out of borrowing authority and can’t meet its must-meet obligations. This is the first week that the Surge has started to believe the solution to the current stalemate might only materialize after the deadline is breached and everyone starts freaking out. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated his position another 10 million times this week: Senate Republicans will not vote to raise or suspend the debt ceiling at all, so Democrats need to do it themselves in their reconciliation bill, which isn’t subject to a filibuster. He seems to have made the calculation that if the debt ceiling is breached, and the economy completely tanks, that will ultimately redound to Republicans’ political benefit. Democrats, meanwhile, think that Republicans will come around in the face of unrelenting pressure from donors, lobbyists, banks, and the assorted other rich people to whom they listen. Maybe they will, but it could take a few days of crisis to get them there. Fun. We like to have fun in Washington. Every second is so much fun.

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3. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Go to a party, whatever!

This week, conservative men online were OUTRAGED at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for attending the swanky, big-ticket Met Gala in a dress that said “Tax the Rich” in Chick-fil-A font. They were furious EVERY TIME they FORCED THEMSELVES to look at this picture of words written on her butt, but they KEPT HAVING to LOOK and LOOK and LOOK. Infuriating. Not that anyone really acquitted themselves great here. AOC felt the need to justify her attendance to this $35,000-per-ticket event afterward by saying that she was trying to “break the fourth wall and challenge some of the institutions.” Hmm, yes indeed, those institutions felt very challenged. Look. It’s fine to just go to a fancy party. Anyone, regardless of their politics, who gets a comp ticket to a party where there’s going to be a caviar fountain and crystal beer bongs of Dom should just go, because it would be both fun and funny. There’s no need to retroactively justify attending a fancy party with celebs as a subversive political experience. It’s a party!

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4. Richard Neal

The limits to taxing the rich.

Or maybe we underestimated AOC? Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, must’ve gotten wind of AOC’s sartorial choice, because he released a couple trillion dollars’ worth of proposed tax hikes this week to pay for Democrats’ massive Build Back Better Act. The proposal does indeed tax the rich, raising rates on capital gains and wages, and applying additional surtaxes on high earners. But it is still focused strictly on the traditional taxation of income, discarding some of the more cutting-edge proposals in recent years to tax all the dollars that rich people are simply hoarding. The act does not include a wealth tax, as Elizabeth Warren had proposed, or any other way to meaningfully dislodge the vast fortunes of the megarich. It also somehow allows private equity and hedge fund managers to continue exploiting a loophole to pay lower rates on their earnings, and it abandons efforts to tax unrealized capital gains passed down to heirs. There are a great deal of progressive Neal haters out there who think he’s just a puppet for donors (as if any other chairman of the tax-writing committee isn’t going to earn massive corporate donations without lifting a finger). But here, he’s the manager of a committee that needs to move a product that can be passed by a narrow House majority. The reason this package was crafted this way is that there just isn’t a strong enough appetite within the House Democratic majority to go pry loose the robber barons’ fortunes and force Jeff Bezos to fly coach on his next trip to space.

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5. Kathleen Rice

Taking a stand for drug companies on principle.

This week, House Democrats’ plan to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, a cornerstone of their agenda, took a big hit. In one of the committees considering that legislation, as part of the broader Build Back Better Act, three Democrats—Reps. Scott Peters, Kurt Schrader, and Kathleen Rice—prevented the drug-pricing language from getting out of committee. While another committee (puppet-man Richard Neal’s Ways and Means!) was able to get the drug-pricing language into the bill anyway, the one failed committee vote is a sign that House Democrats will have real problems passing this in a full floor vote. Now, everyone has complicated reasons for why they might block a popular drug-pricing proposal that they supported in the previous Congress. But let’s do a—oh, we don’t know—financial investigation into why these three members might have done this. The top donor industry for Scott Peters this year is pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceuticals are No. 2 for Kurt Schrader, behind oil and gas. Rice, though? She’s barely been getting anything from pharmaceuticals—though that may have changed in the last couple of nights!—making this a selfless, principled defense of maximal profit margins for the industry. Fun story about Rice: She earned her seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee just this year, beating out Ocasio-Cortez—who would’ve voted for the drug-pricing plan—for the slot.

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6. Jim Risch

Who pressed the secret “Delete Biden” button? WHO, MR. SECRETARY?

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch is a serious person. The former chair, and now ranking member, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Risch had the opportunity to grill Secretary of State Tony Blinken this week in a hearing about the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He led off with the most incisive question of all: Who has “authority to press the button” that cuts off the president’s “speaking ability”? Really, go to this C-SPAN page and watch “Exchange With Sen. Risch on Who Has the Power to Shut Off President’s Speaking Ability.” The specific incident—not that he bothered to explain this to Blinken, who’s absolutely at sea listening to this guy—to which Risch is referring is from a presidential visit to Idaho the previous day. The way these visits work for the press is that there’s a “pool spray” where photographers come in ahead of a meeting and take photos. They then leave while the president has a conversation with those he’s meeting with. So in the White House livestream, the video cuts out when the spray ends and the discussion begins. This is normal! The Republican National Committee and right-wing media, though, tried to portray this as a nefarious White House manipulation. Risch and the RNC are trying to insinuate that Biden is senile and not calling the shots in his own administration. But when you watch this clip of Risch repeatedly badgering a mystified secretary of state in a public setting about who in the White House is “pressing the button,” it’s not Biden who’s coming off as helpless and out of the loop.

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7. Nicki Minaj

This was nuts.

If we remember only one dumb Twitter cycle from the COVID-19 pandemic, may it please be rapper Nicki Minaj sharing the sad tale of her cousin’s friend. “My cousin in Trinidad won’t get the vaccine cuz his friend got it & became impotent,” Minaj tweeted Monday. “His testicles became swollen. His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding. So just pray on it & make sure you’re comfortable with ur decision, not bullied.” Immediately, everyone raced to their culture-war battle stations. Tucker Carlson on Fox defended her heroism! Joy Reid on MSNBC went off on Minaj, and Minaj went off on her right back. Minaj said she was put in “Twitter jail,” which Twitter denied. Anthony Fauci jumped in. Trinidad and Tobago jumped in. Minaj said the White House invited her to visit, and then the White House said that it just offered her a call. Sigh. There was a time when a celebrity could have said that her cousin’s friend in Trinidad got huge balls after taking a vaccine and then his girlfriend dumped him before their wedding, and it would have just stood on its own as a beautiful thing.