The Surge

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

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, your weekly newsletter spreading Christmas cheer with Senate procedural updates!

Congress has, actually, cleared a lot off of its plate. Your elected officials successfully punted government funding into the new year, came up with a characteristically dumb way to raise the dumb debt ceiling, and finally got the annual defense bill moving. Now Senate Democrats just have to figure out how to pass their signature legislation, which Joe Manchin may actually hate. One powerful Republican is quitting Congress to run Trump’s fantasy baseball league/media thingie, the Georgia governor’s race became unnecessarily complicated for Republicans because Trump insisted it be so, progressives are pushing Speaker Nancy Pelosi to punish Rep. Lauren Boebert, and Vice President Kamala Harris controversially purchased cookware.

But first, every time you Googled “politics” this week—oops, revealed a little trick o’ the trade—there would be some new weird development with a former presidential chief of staff who may be in over his head.

Mark Meadows grinning and holding sunglasses on a background of an illustrated American flag
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week

1. Mark Meadows

So what exactly are we doing here?

The Surge remembers one night in Congress a few years ago, during some budget negotiation, when then-Rep. Mark Meadows was running between meetings with the Freedom Caucus and Speaker Paul Ryan, then doing a TV hit, then taking calls from President Donald Trump, all interspersed with reporters badgering him at every step. We observed to a fellow reporter that he looked frenzied, to which the reporter replied, “I think he’s in his element.” It was true. Meadows, in a more subtle way than the president to whom he served as chief of staff, thrives in self-made swirls of chaos. And what a swirl he has made for himself to coincide with the release of his book! First, he revealed in the book that Trump tested positive for COVID before a presidential debate, and then he retweeted a Trump statement calling that a lie. Huh. He was going to cooperate with the Jan. 6 select committee, but then said he would stop cooperating, and now is suing the committee and Nancy Pelosi. Before he stopped cooperating, though, he turned over a PowerPoint to the committee that laid out various coup options ahead of Electoral College certification, among other things. And the committee is going to move ahead with criminal contempt proceedings against him anyway. Again, we’d say that Meadows seems a bit frenzied here, and are not sure this will all pan out well for him. But at least he’s in his element.

Rank 2

Last Week

2. Joe Manchin

What if he simply doesn’t want to pass the bill?

A recurring theme with Joe Manchin this year is that he will, for months, give his opinion on important bills, but he has to say it a dozen times before Democrats start to believe that he might really mean it. This week, at the annual D.C. confab nefariously known as the Wall Street Journal CEO Council (greatest media section food spread in the political conference business, by the way), Manchin expressed familiar worries about how fast the Build Back Better Act was moving (!), how it could worsen inflation, how he’s not on board with certain climate and social provisions, and how budget gimmicks within the bill disguise its true long-term cost. Manchin has been meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and others throughout the week, and the thought was that Manchin would just take his pound of flesh—cut a paid leave program here, slash a clean energy incentive there—and Senate Democrats could then pass it on schedule, ahead of the holiday recess. But what if … Manchin doesn’t … ya know… what if he just doesn’t like the bill and doesn’t want to vote for it? Friday’s awful inflation report, which each Republican senator is practically nailing to Manchin’s front door, won’t help either—as Biden has conceded. So UHHHHHHHHHHHH. Yeah. We shall see.

Rank 3

Last Week

3. Mitch McConnell

Know when to lose.

To recap, Republicans didn’t want to help Democrats raise the debt ceiling. That meant they didn’t even want to supply enough votes to break a filibuster on a debt ceiling bill and then allow 50 Democrats to do it by themselves. So this week, the stupid deal they agreed upon was: Congress would pass a separate bill that created a one-time, filibuster-free, fast-track process in the Senate allowing a majority to pass a debt ceiling increase, and then Democrats would pass a debt ceiling increase, on their own, in a separate bill. This deal caps off one of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s less-than-genius episodes. He spent the whole summer adamantly insisting that Republicans would not, in any way, help Democrats raise the debt ceiling, and then twice—now and in October—agreed to procedural jiujitsu that facilitated Democrats raising the debt ceiling. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told his fellow senators that McConnell “led them on a charge up a hill and they were getting shot in the back,” and Trump, who hates McConnell, is calling him all sorts of names again too. To defend McConnell (that’s the Surge’s brand!): Things changed since the summer. Republicans’ positioning heading into the midterms strengthened, and the off-cycle elections in November offered proof. The priority, then, became not to do anything too risky when they already had a good thing going. So McConnell bailed out of a risky position that was no longer worth it. No one will remember in a couple of weeks.

Rank 4

Last Week

4. David Perdue

Only I, the loser, can win.

After consistent recruitment efforts from Trump, former Georgia Sen. David Perdue—who lost his January runoff to Sen. Jon Ossoff in large part because Trump’s stolen election narrative depressed GOP turnout—announced a primary challenge to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump hates for not overturning the election. Perdue’s messaging, well, it’s bold. He is running on the message that he would not have certified Georgia’s results, and said in his announcement video that Republicans need to be united to defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams. “Unfortunately, today, we are divided,” he added. “Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger are to blame.” So. Here we have a dude who just lost to Jon Ossoff saying that only he can beat Stacey Abrams, whom Brian Kemp has already defeated once. This is deeply pathetic stuff that you’d just laugh at if the premise of the candidacy weren’t that he’s willing to overturn elections when Democrats win. 

Rank 5

Last Week

5. Devin Nunes

Why chair a powerful committee when you can be CEO of the next great scam?

California Rep. Devin Nunes, a once-normal ally of leadership who used that alliance to secure excellent committee positions early in his career, only to become a litigious MAGA oddball during the Trump administration, announced his retirement this week, effective at the end of the year. This was an unusual one. If Republicans take back the House, as they’re favored to do, he was in line to chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, one of the prime gigs in Congress. But Nunes received “a job offer that he can’t refuse”: CEO of Trump’s upcoming media company, Trump Media & Technology Group, which is under investigation by the SEC and FINRA before it’s even off the ground. May he have a jolly time with that. Some ascribed Nunes’ retirement to a proposed California redistricting plan that would have made his district blue. But he could’ve hopscotched to a new district if he wanted to and had plenty of primary support from Trump. Really, this is a stark indicator of just how weak committee chairs have become under centralized control of Congress, when someone would rather take a job with a dicey new media operation rather than chair the oldest standing committee in the House.

Rank 6

Last Week

6. Ilhan Omar

Pressuring Pelosi to act.

Ever since it was revealed that Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert has been going around cracking the same joke about how Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar might be a terrorist, while calling a group of progressives in the House that includes two Muslim women “the Jihad Squad,” Omar and other progressives have insisted she be disciplined in the House. And the longer Pelosi defers punishment, such as stripping Boebert of her committees, the more agitated progressives are getting. “I haven’t heard anything binding from leadership, which in and of itself is an embarrassment,” New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the Hill this week, while New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman said that “if nothing happens, it means we’re accepting anti-Muslim hate in Congress and we’re accepting and condoning anti-Muslim hate across the country.” Pelosi, at her weekly press conference, wouldn’t commit to any punishment, saying only, “When I'm ready to announce that, I'll let you know.” But as the Washington Post reported this week, “some Democratic aides say punishing Boebert would only establish a messy precedent that could force Democrats to censure members every time they make false, racist or cruel statements.” House Democrats have already established a messy precedent by stripping GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar of their committees this year, for incidents relating to threatening violence or violent imagery. Now they’re figuring out where to draw the line.

Rank 7

Last Week

7. Kamala Harris

Pots and pans? WIRES??? What could be next?

There are valid criticisms of the vice president and real questions about whether she’s the best candidate to serve as heir apparent to the Democratic Party. But then there’s a separate genre of weirdo coverage of her consumer purchases and preferences. First, there was Cookwaregate, when she bought stuff to cook with. “Vice President Kamala Harris spent over $500 on cookware in a Parisian shop amid rising inflation and economic uncertainty at home in the U.S.,” as Fox News reported breathlessly in November. It was, perhaps, a diplomatic gesture to restock the ol’ French coffers after the administration had just screwed France out of $66 billion in submarine sales. Or it was just a person buying a nice pot and pan, for cooking. But the cookware kerfuffle was nothing compared to the uproar this week. Politico reported that Kamala Harris uses headphones WITH WIRES because she is “Bluetooth-phobic.” The next-in-line to the most powerful job in the world, they added, “has long felt that Bluetooth headphones are a security risk.” (Apparently they are?) “As a result, Harris insists on using wired headphones,” much as a nerd, or very cool person, might. “It’s a recurring theme,” Politico added, noting that “an aide on her 2016 Senate bid said Harris often preferred texting to email for security reasons.” Wherever would she get the idea in 2016 that Democratic politicians’ emails weren’t secure?