Jun 28, 2023

Kevin McCarthy and Joe Biden: Who’s feeling more smug?

Welcome to this week's edition of the Surge, which has been taken over by several 14-year-olds in Iowa while our esteemed colleague Jim Newell is away. Time to tank the brand!

This week, we reflect on the debt ceiling drama, its winners, its losers, and perhaps the only person who emerged from it more respected than when it started. We’re also checking in on the specific pronunciation of "DeSantis." Even Ronny D doesn't seem to know!

Let us begin with a presumably very smug speaker.

By Ben Mathis-Lilley , Christina Cauterucci , Alexander Sammon , Nitish Pahwa , and Molly Olmstead

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, by dint of his central role in this spring's debt ceiling drama, is either a big winner or a big loser, right? Many journalists have anointed him both—a destroyer of worlds but also a deal-maker, a patsy but also a conquering hero. McCarthy's outright successes in the debt deal are ultimately pretty marginal. But he did manage to eke it through. He also managed to weaponize the threat of default to win unpopular policy concessions—that he admitted would have been nearly impossible to get through regular order. And he managed to get a majority of Democrats to vote for a bill with zero Democratic priorities that undercuts their agenda and hurts them on message. Really, his biggest victory was the exposure of his arch-right critics as even bigger losers than he is (and we do mean losers in the grander, high school–hallway sense of that word). Despite having won the ability to depose McCarthy with just one vote, not a single member of the Freedom Caucus (or the Freedom Caucus extended universe) has had the courage to invoke that power, even as they lament McCarthy's bill as near-treachery. Now McCarthy gets to return to one of his first loves, focusing on cutting Social Security and Medicare.

You know who did win big in the debt ceiling deal? Joe Manchin. And he must be pretty pleased, because he's otherwise been kinda going through it. After two years of stringing along the press, the White House, and his caucus colleagues—while loudly dithering on every major Democratic priority—the senator from West Virginia now finds himself much less powerful, and far less certain of victory should he run again in 2024. Manchin's home-state popularity dwindled after he negotiated the Inflation Reduction Act, and he's been trying hard to retain his image as a conservative coal baron who would die—die!—before replacing his gas stove. No yucky Democratic priorities like solar panels for him. So it must have been a relief when this week's debt ceiling deal included a legal pathway to finish building the Mountain Valley Pipeline, something Manchin demanded last year in exchange for his climate-legislation support. (Psst, don't call it climate legislation.) Now, will the controversial natural gas pipeline actually save Manchin's reelection prospects? Unclear, considering that all hypothetical matchups reeaaallly don't look great for him. But he gets to piss off environmentalists as well as fellow Democrats like Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who introduced a doomed amendment to strip the pipeline's approval from the bill. You can bet Manchin's going to make the most of that during his next visit to Wheeling.

With the "help" (threats) of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Biden negotiated a deal to circumvent the calamitous possibility of the U.S. defaulting on its debts. Far-right conservatives hate the deal, and progressives also hate it, which means that people close to Biden are undoubtedly congratulating him with dumb lines like, "If people on both sides are mad at you, you’re probably doing something right!" Should any political party have the power to hold the entire global economy hostage every year or two? No. Is the Surge happy that the Biden compromise expands work requirements for SNAP eligibility, effectively kicking people out of the program and plunging them into food insecurity? Obviously not. Does the Surge think it's wack that the debt ceiling bill approved Manchin's baby—the natural gas pipeline in West Virginia—and that it says, in the bill, that the pipeline "will reduce carbon emissions and facilitate the energy transition"? Absolutely. But the end result of this high-stakes game of chicken isn't quite as atrocious as many had feared.

One thing that even the savviest political observers did not really know a week ago was whether McCarthy could make a debt ceiling deal with Biden without getting deposed by the far-right members of his caucus. In fact, one of the key provisions he agreed to in order to become speaker in the first place is that any single member of the House can call for a vote on whether to replace him at any time. (This is known as a motion to vacate the chair.) Anyone can do it! And on Tuesday, conservative North Carolina Rep. Dan Bishop, furious about how little budget-cutting there was, announced that it was time for the speaker to go. "I’m fed up with the lack of courage—the cowardice—and I intend, in the time that I’m here, to see to it that there is someone who is prepared to say what needs to be done," said Bishop. He added, moreover, that a move against McCarthy was "inescapable." So, did he do it? Did he make a motion to vacate? Well: "I don't make single decisions like that alone," Bishop went on, explaining that McCarthy's fate would depend on whether other members "have courage." Tough talk, Dan Bishop!

There hasn't been a ton of civility and bipartisan goodwill in Washington, D.C., even the somewhat performative kind, since Donald Trump came to town. He's not there anymore physically, but his brand of reflexively oppositional MAGA biliousness usually remains ascendant. This week, though, McCarthy and Biden made a deal that a wide majority of House members decided they could support, and then everyone absolutely poured compliments on White House Office of Management and Budget director Shalanda Young, a 45-year-old veteran of the House Appropriations staff who was one of the agreement's principal negotiators. In a Tuesday Washington Post piece, she was described by sources from both parties as "well liked," "well respected," "honest," "highly credible," "serious but funny," possessed of "encyclopedic knowledge" and "political savvy," "hard-working," "smart," and "a delight." She was even complimented for being a talented photographer. Now, Republicans do have some incentive to seem gracious and fair when they see the opportunity; the press, and some voters, reward them for it. The Washington Post also has an incentive to get brownie points from the administration now and then. But for this level of effusiveness? One would have to conclude that Young is probably at least pretty good at running a budget department (and taking photographs).

DeSantis may be trailing Donald Trump substantially in the polls, but with the official launch of his campaign (in a less-than-glorious technological disaster he's retconned into an internet-crashing blaze of glory), he's really getting out there. His first in-person campaign events have been a whirlwind of flesh-pressing in industrial and agricultural sites in Iowa. ("Florida is the Iowa of the Southeast," DeSantis said.) But his campaign has also been plagued by a realization, alighted upon by the national press, that something strange has been going on in ol’ Ron's head: the man doesn't seem to have a consistent way to pronounce his own last name.

Axios, which tracked the inconsistencies between his "Dee-Santis" and "Deh-Santis" pronunciations, even quoted a professor of Italian studies who found "Dee-Santis" to be a somewhat baffling choice. (" 'Day-Sahn-tees' would be proper Italian," the professor said.) A Trump campaign spokesperson told Axios that the waffling proved DeSantis was a "phony." And not one to miss out on a names discourse, Trump himself, in one of 19 posts he shared about DeSantis being a loser over the course of 24 hours this week, wrote on his social media site: "Actually, I like ‘Da’ better, a nicer flow, so I am happy he is changing it." He then—again—called his opponent "DeSanctimonious." (He also tried out "Ron ‘DeSaster.’ ")

Up until this point, DeSantis has ignored Trump's comments. But not now that he's an Official Candidate! Asked in a New Hampshire talk-radio program about Trump's posts, DeSantis called them "petty" and "juvenile" and "one of the reasons he's not in the White House now." (Apparently, just directly resolving the question of how to pronounce his name was not an option.) And in his campaign events, while he hasn't mentioned the former president by name, DeSantis has alluded to Trump's failures in sharp terms in his speeches, pointing out the lack of progress on "securing the border" and the growth of the national debt, suggesting Trump had "decided to move left" on some issues, and scoffing at the Republican Party's "culture of losing" that developed under his presidency. Well, at least DeSantis is starting to look just a tiny bit less like a Trump punching bag!

This week, Mike Pence reached a pivotal milestone in his journey back to the White House: officially leaking through an anonymous source that he will officially announce his 2024 presidential bid next week. Most of us already knew this was coming—in New Hampshire last month, he visited an eerily understaffed Dunkin’, a sacred rite of passage for aspiring heads of state—but the Surge never misses a chance to marvel at the misplaced dreams of Republican hopefuls. Exactly how does Pence intend to peel away supporters from the current frontrunner, Donald Trump, whose fans believe Pence is the reason their hero is no longer president? How does a guy with the charisma of an unraveling throw blanket expect to rouse the excitement of voters accustomed to a reality-TV star? Pence is already fumbling on the biggest conservative concerns: He was weeks late to condemn the Dodgers for planning to honor a nun-imitating drag charity group at the team's Pride-themed night, which had spurred a paroxysm of right-wing fury that peaked last month. (Finally, this week, Pence tweeted that Major League Baseball "should be apologizing to Catholics across America.") Nevertheless, the Surge anxiously awaits Pence's candidacy, because it's fun to think about the former VP onstage debating the guy who reportedly believed that the Jan. 6 insurrectionists screaming "HANG MIKE PENCE!" kind of had a point.

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The man, the myth, the legislator. ♫ Pipeline negotiator ♫ Well, he did it (Joe). We’re all looking for the guy who's *gonna* do this. And have you *seen* her portfolio? (Finally?) throwing some punches. The time has come.