Slate’s guide to the most important figures in politics this week.
Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge! Dianne Feinstein’s back in town, and when we say “back in town,” we mean back in town. (We don’t know what this means.)
WHAT NEWS FROM THE FRONT? Kevin McCarthy: doing kind of a good negotiating job? Mitch McConnell: concerned about blowing it again. George Santos: dead. [Rereads cue card.] George Santos: indicted. And what’s with all these troops running all over the place to get abortions? Sounds fine to us! Less so to Sen. Tommy Tuberville.
Let’s start, though, with … you know … the one.
1. Donald TrumpDon’t for a second think he can’t win the presidency again.
After the 2022 midterms, when Trump-backed candidates spewing Trump-required dogma about the “stolen” 2020 election blew Republicans a great many winnable races, Donald Trump was at a low. “Grown-up” Republicans were determined to stop him from winning the party’s 2024 presidential nomination, as he had proven himself, once and for all, unelectable. The Surge would like to observe that Trump is quite electable, even with everything. First, the primary: What we saw in this week’s CNN town hall was an effective incumbent, at the height of his bullshitting powers, charming the pants off a receptive Republican audience. The Surge is not in the predictions business, but Trump did not look like a man who is going to lose a Republican presidential primary. But what of the general? We don’t feel it’s adequately understood how weak Joe Biden is. In a Washington Post/ABC poll this week, like many polls we’ve seen before, only 36 percent of Democratic-leaning adults think Biden should be renominated. The culprit is obvious, and not especially changeable: Only 32 percent of Americans feel Biden has the “mental sharpness it takes to serve effectively as president,” while just 33 percent feel he is “in good enough physical health to serve effectively as president.” Now: A lot of Democratic leaners, independents, and anti-Trump Republicans who believe that Biden is too old and mentally unfit to serve another four years will ultimately hold their noses and vote for him. But the last election was close. This election will be too. Trump has as good a chance as anyone of winning it.
2. George Santos*As he’s dragged into his jail cell* I will never resign!!!
Well, it sure was a week of Finding Out for the Long Island fabulist congressman, whom the feds indicted on 13 counts. Among the alleged schemes: COVID-19-era unemployment-insurance fraud, soliciting big campaign donations that he then just bought cool stuff with, and lying in House disclosure forms. (Never lie to the House clerk; she has extralegal executionary powers.) While a slew of House Republicans called on George Santos to resign or be expelled, he still—for the moment—has the backing of Speaker Kevin McCarthy. After his arraignment, Santos was spiraling in his public remarks. Swearing he would never resign or drop his bid for reelection, he claimed he was subject to a “witch hunt” and was booed by a Long Island crowd when he attempted to change the subject to Hunter Biden. Meanwhile, he was already musing aloud about his next scheme: “This has been an experience, you know, for a book or something like that.” That could depend on the pen and paper supplies in prison.
3. Kevin McCarthyIs he … pulling this off?
Call McCarthy a nincompoop all you want, but—so far!—he’s outplaying Democrats on the debt limit. Democrats, standing by their position that they wouldn’t negotiate over the debt limit, had hoped that McCarthy would fail to pass a debt-limit bill in the House, allowing the Democrat-controlled Senate to take over and jam a clean debt increase down the House’s throat. It hasn’t worked out that way. McCarthy was able to muscle through a debt-limit bill last week, and Senate Democrats can’t put 60 votes together for their own response. The White House was forced to come to the negotiating table, and staff from both sides are in the early stages of identifying possible cuts. (The White House spin is that it’s just negotiating as part of the standard budget/appropriations process and its engagement has nothing to do with the debt ceiling. Sure.) But even if McCarthy has played his cards well so far, the moment of truth is still on the horizon. Suppose the two sides can reach a deal that claws back certain unspent COVID monies, institutes short-term spending caps (which can always be eliminated later), and raises the debt limit beyond the 2024 election. Would that deal, which would be passed with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes, be enough for McCarthy to inoculate himself against a run at his job from disappointed Freedom Caucus hard-liners? It would be a tough sell. But we’ll confess to underestimating McCarthy up to this point.
4. Dianne FeinsteinA sad spectacle. But hey, judicial nominees are advancing!
Well! It was the eeriest week yet in the yearslong saga that is the unraveling of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. After more than a two-month shingles-related absence from the Senate that impeded the Senate Judiciary Committee’s work, the 89-year-old senator—who is in exceedingly poor mental and physical health but refuses to resign—was schlepped on a plane back to D.C. on Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer declared her “ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work.” Indeed, she was fired up and ready to vote by the … third vote of Wednesday afternoon, when she arrived outside the Capitol and was wheelchaired onto the Senate floor. She eventually made it to Thursday’s Senate Judiciary Committee markup too, allowing three party-line nominees to finally advance out of committee. Feinstein, in a statement, indicated that the sleeves may be only partially rolled up for the near term. “Even though I’ve made significant progress and was able to return to Washington, I’m still experiencing some side effects from the shingles virus,” she said. “My doctors have advised me to work a lighter schedule as I return to the Senate.” Frankly, who the hell knows what is going on with this person. But it appears she can say “aye” a few times a week on the Senate floor and in the Judiciary Committee, keeping the Democratic judicial nomination agenda on pace.
5. Mitch McConnellStill shook from 2022.
The Senate minority leader did a bunch of press this week talking about the 2024 Senate map and the need for Republicans to not blow it again. McConnell is not leaving much up to chance this time, saying that his focus is primarily on flipping seats in West Virginia, Ohio, Montana, and Pennsylvania. He, personally, is getting much more involved in candidate selection after Republican Senate primary voters in 2022 nominated the worst individual person living in Arizona, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Georgia, respectively. He already successfully recruited Gov. Jim Justice to run in West Virginia, and he’s backing David McCormick in Pennsylvania, whom “Dr. Oz” narrowly beat in the 2022 primary. He will not rest until he has a broadly acceptable, wealthy self-funder in every state! “I just spent 10 minutes explaining to you how we could screw this up,” McConnell told CNN this week, “and we’re working very hard to not let that happen. Let’s put it that way.”
6. Kyrsten SinemaDon’t “both-sides” election denialism.
One state McConnell did not mention as promising in his list, surprisingly, was Arizona, because the GOP is likely to nominate a kook again. In his CNN interview, McConnell did allude to an effort to bring Kyrsten Sinema into the GOP conference. “We would love to have had her,” McConnell said, “but we didn’t land her.” Sinema, now an independent, still hasn’t made a decision about running for reelection. But she’s doing an unusual amount of press, and she has one position she’s sticking to: Those political parties are both nuts! (Sure, fine.) But when asked by CBS’ Margaret Brennan what was behind all the election denialism in Arizona specifically, she went both-sides on it. “Well, one of the unfortunate things that's happening in Arizona,” Sinema said, “and we see this in other parts of the country as well, is that the two political parties have gotten more and more extreme.” Yes, we get it, Democrats do suck; they want to imprison every police officer and they all want to marry trees, etc. But there is really only one side that is responsible for the vast rise of election denialism in Maricopa County, Arizona. C’mon!
7. Tommy TubervilleAbortions? White nationalists?? It’s “This Week In the Military”!
The Alabama senator for months now has placed a hold on dozens and dozens of military promotions that are typically agreed to quickly on the Senate floor. It’s in protest of a post-Dobbs Pentagon policy that provides travel funds for troops who seek abortions but are based in states where they’re illegal. Democrats have been hounding Tuberville for weeks, arguing he’s putting national security at risk. The walls are closing in on his side too, as McConnell said he didn't support Tuberville’s hold. But it was another discussion of military policy that got Tuberville in more acute damage control this week. Tuberville was asked on a radio show, “You mentioned the Biden administration trying to prevent white nationalists from being in the military. Do you believe they should allow white nationalists in the military?” His response was, “Well, they call them that. I call them Americans.” Tuberville later attempted to clarify his remarks, telling CNN, “Democrats portray all MAGA Republicans as white nationalists. That’s not true: We got a lot of great people in the military that are MAGAs—that’s what I was talking about.” Huh. Is there some kind of grand bargain on abortions and white nationalists in the military that can resolve the debt-limit situation? Just thinking here.