The Surge

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

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, now coming to you on Saturday so that our elite coastal snob readers can read this over their $100 avocado toast brunches, and feel sad.

This week, Congress found a path toward averting self-made global financial calamity for a whole two months. If anyone deserves next week off, it’s them. Also, Chuck Schumer was mean, Chuck Grassley puckered up for Trump, and Kyrsten Sinema went to the bathroom.

Meanwhile, everyone’s mad at Mitch.

Mitch McConnell.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week Up from last week #6

1. Mitch McConnell

Why did he blink?

We didn’t think the Senate minority leader’s decision to let through a two-month increase in the debt ceiling was a cave, as it just punted the underlying issue of a long-term extension toward a dramatic holiday finish. But the Surge is an easy grader! McConnell’s conference was furious with him after he made the deal, with Sen. Lindsey Graham calling it “a complete capitulation” and Sen. Ted Cruz declaring that “Chuck Schumer won this game of chicken.” Cruz—who is back in his own beloved game of pissing off his colleagues to build material for his next presidential run—insisted on Thursday on forcing a cloture vote, meaning Republican leadership had to scrounge up 10 votes to help Democrats break a filibuster (they got 11). So why did McConnell, in the short term at least, back off from his original insistence that Republicans wouldn’t help Democrats, and that Democrats needed to raise the debt limit through the filibuster-free reconciliation process? According to some members of his conference, McConnell was worried that the pressure on Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to nix the filibuster, at least in this specific case, might become too strong for them to resist. If that’s the case, then McConnell—who is lauded for his ability to see every step of the game well in advance—might be losing his edge, because he surely should’ve seen that coming. The rage from his conference, though, as well as the difficulty Republicans had putting up votes to break a filibuster, suggests that this monthslong strategy of refusing to help Democrats wasn’t a McConnell offensive play so much as an act of desperation to keep a lid on divisions within his conference. McConnell swears Republicans won’t do this on the next vote. But isn’t that what he said the last time?

Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #3

2. Chuck Schumer

He was mean, so the global economy’s gonna have to go.

After 61 senators voted to break the filibuster on the debt limit increase Thursday night—with one Republican vote more than needed, so no one could be tagged “the deciding vote”—Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave a wee victory speech. “Despite immense opposition from Leader McConnell and members of his conference, our caucus held together and we have pulled our country back from the cliff’s edge that Republicans tried to push us over,” Schumer said of the “Republican-manufactured crisis.” It was a very partisan speech, which is to say it was a pretty normal 2021 Senate speech/Chuck Schumer speech. But Senate Republicans—and their friend, Sad Joe Manchin—haven’t cried this much since mean Rep. Jerry Nadler got up in their faces during the first Trump impeachment. Sen. Mitt Romney had words for Schumer on the floor, and told reporters that “there’s a time to be graceful and there’s a time to be combative. That was a time for grace and common ground.” Romney, of course, voted against cloture on this graceful, common-ground measure. Republican Sen. Mike Rounds, who provided the 11th Republican vote for cloture, called the speech “classless” and said that Republicans wouldn’t help Democrats the next time. We really need to start a spinoff newsletter devoted strictly to Senate Brain. And we’ll let the global economy collapse in December because Chuck Schumer was partisan in a speech would make for an ideal inaugural No. 1.

Rank 3

Last Week Down from last week #2

3. Kyrsten Sinema

Why people might follow a senator to the toilet.

Following Sen. Kyrsten Sinema into the bathroom and recording her while she’s in the stall is not going to work. A senator like Sinema will then want to be seen as not caving to people who would follow her to the toilet. (Also, the Surge has staked out many a bathroom door, and people do come out eventually.) What Sinema may want to acknowledge, though, is that if people feel they need to follow you into a bathroom to get your attention, you might not be doing a stellar job with public outreach. Sinema worships John McCain and fancies herself a similar “maverick,” but one integral part of the John McCain model is telling everyone what you think all the time. No one felt like they had to follow McCain into the bathroom, and even if they had, he would’ve given a press conference from the john. Sinema, meanwhile, won’t say anything to anyone in public—constituent groups, her Senate colleagues, Slate reporter Jim Newell—about where she stands on the Build Back Better Act, except through workshopped public statements declaring that it needs to be smaller. In-state activists, worried their group’s interests will be victims of Sinema’s demanded cuts, follow her to the bathroom because she won’t meet with them. She justifies this all by saying that she refuses to negotiate through the press. This isn’t about negotiating the finer details of tax increases, though, it’s about letting anyone know whether you can stomach tax increases at all. Or expanding Medicare, or reining in prescription drug costs, or expanding the child tax credit, or anything else that’s under discussion. (For his part, Sen. Joe Manchin does this much better than Sinema, actually occasionally telling people where he stands.) Sinema’s own Democratic colleagues are left guessing what she wants by reading rumors in Politico or Axios, just like the rest of us chuckleheads. She’s kind of an important senator. Maybe she should tell people what she believes?

Rank 4

Last Week

4. Bernie Sanders

At the very least, tell Bernie Sanders what you believe.

We weren’t making up that no one knows what Sinema wants. Listen to Bernie! “I think Sen. Sinema's position has been that she doesn't, quote-unquote, negotiate publicly,” Sanders told reporters this week. “And I don't know what that means. We don't know where she's coming from.” Sanders made these remarks, and quite a bit more, in an impromptu press conference Wednesday afternoon where he chose to go off on Sinema and Manchin for a solid 15 minutes, as part of a concerted effort to save the Build Back Better Act’s scope from being trimmed by more than half. “Two people do not have the right to sabotage what 48 want, what the president of the United States wants,” Sanders told reporters. “That, to me, is wrong.” Fifty-two senators do indeed have the right to sabotage what 48 want, but we know what he means: that Sinema and Manchin aren’t being team players. The difficulty for Sanders here is that it is not politically detrimental to the Democratic senators from West Virginia and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Arizona to be hollered at by Bernie Sanders. It could even be considered a plus. Manchin  said, “I don’t take anything personal” in response to Sanders’ criticism, and some Democrats have been saying it’s important to get Manchin and Sanders in a room together to work this out. Manchin and Sanders may not agree. When asked Friday about the possibility of meeting, Sanders told reporters, “This isn’t a movie.”

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Chuck Grassley

Is this really how you want to spend your late golden years?

The senior senator from Iowa, who has held political office continuously since 1959, recently announced he would run for an eighth term that would expire when he is 95 years old. It’s an odd decision to want to spend your 90s (or 80s, 70s, 60s, 50s, 40s, or 30s) in the United States Senate when you could be doing anything else, but whatever floats your boat. Was Grassley properly aware, though, of the toll this next campaign would take on his dignity? Grassley will have to spend both the entirety of this campaign, and then potentially the next six years, continuing to live under the thumb of Donald Trump. This week, the Judiciary Committee released a report listing all of the ways Trump pressed the Justice Department to try to overturn the election. It was Grassley’s political task, then, to write the minority report for Republicans arguing that “available evidence shows the President Trump did not use the Justice Department to overturn the election.” Ultimately, it argues that "Trump listened to his advisors, including high-level DOJ officials and White House Counsel and followed their recommendations.” Huh? Reporters get umpteen Trump press statements a day chewing out losers who were too weak to help him overturn the election. He’ll probably spend an hour doing it at his Iowa rally this weekend, too, where one Sen. Chuck Grassley is slated to speak.

Rank 6

Last Week

6. Andrew Yang

A new party dedicated to honesty from an admitted liar.

The failed Democratic presidential candidate and failed Democratic New York mayoral candidate announced this week that he had quit the Democratic Party as a gimmick to sell his new book. He said that in going independent, he could be more “honest” and “reach people who are outside the system more effectively.” One reason to question his ability to be “honest,” though, is how he copped this week that he was playing New York City voters during his mayoral campaign. “If I had won,” he told the Washington Post, “I was going to say that, ‘Hey, I’m an independent, and I'm starting the Forward Party.’ ” He doesn’t seem to understand how devious this is as he admits it. Despite theoretically not feeling comfortable in the Democratic Party, he pretended he was so that he could use it as a vehicle toward becoming mayor. Once through the primary, though, his plan was to quit the party whose voters had just nominated him. That’s a truly deceitful thing to do! But maybe this ex post facto hypothetical plan is a lie, too. Maybe if he’d have won the Democratic mayoral primary, he actually would have stayed a Democrat. But since he didn’t, and hasn’t, he needs a new gimmick. Whatever it takes to stay forever marginally famous.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Terry McAuliffe

Friendship ended with BIDEN; now TAYLOR is my best friend.

We wrote last week about how the Virginia governor’s race is going to be close even though the commonwealth is now popularly understood as a “blue state.” The reality is that the state has voted for Democrats recently, but that doesn’t mean it’s outside of striking distance for Republicans, desperate to win a statewide race in potentially the right environment. And this is the right environment: The incumbent Democratic president’s poll numbers are underwater. Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe isn’t just grumbling privately about the “headwinds from Washington” anymore, either. In a virtual rally with supporters on Tuesday, he noted that “the president is unpopular today, unfortunately, here in Virginia, so we’ve got to plow through.” McAuliffe this month has tried to denationalize the race by focusing on his private equity career of his opponent, Glenn Youngkin, the former CEO of the Carlyle Group. As part of that front, he launched a small ad buy connecting Youngkin to the malicious effort to deprive Taylor Swift of her master recordings, given that Carlyle backed the sale of those masters to Scooter Braun. Once Taylor Swift is involved, Republicans have no chance. Just ask Tennessee Sen. Phil Bredesen.