MESA & BENNETT: Wrapping Up ‘Federal Fantasy’
Playing Politics

In our very first column — amid new Republican control of all three government branches and rapidly changing power structures in Washington, D.C. — we created a game of “Federal Fantasy,” each picking three senators who we believed would be the most influential in this new political arena. Below, we evaluated how each performed.

Aaron’s Power Trio:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) A-

McCain has by far been President Donald Trump’s most outspoken critic within the GOP. From out-hawking him in foreign affairs to out-flanking him by refusing to accept a stopgap solution to the impending government shutdown, McCain has maintained his conservative credentials while also sharply critiquing the president’s policies. Especially given the significant international crises in this early chapter of the Trump administration, the senator from Arizona has proven himself worthy of a top fantasy pick.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) D

Heller was undoubtedly the bust of my draft. I had high hopes for Heller: As a vulnerable senator who needed a big splash in a state quickly turning blue, he had several opportunities to achieve national prominence. Like McCain, he could have spoken out against Trump’s controversial foreign policy. Like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), he could have voted against a top-ticket issue like the nomination of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Instead, Heller has remained disappointingly silent on flashpoint issues, drawing anger from constituents and rumors of potential challengers in 2018.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) B

“Quiet” was the name of the game for Manchin — but this is not the worst situation for him. Manchin has kept a low profile but has maintained his role as a centrist Democrat, casting the least “no” votes for Trump nominees among Democrats, earning Trump’s respect and attempting to negotiate a last-minute deal to preserve the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. Although he is not championing legislation or party doctrine, Manchin has positioned himself as a key player for Republicans, Democrats and the White House. Overall, his consistency and long-term thinking earn him solid marks.

Christian’s Big Three:

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) A

The majority leader has struggled to preserve the party voting bloc in light of the slim Republican majority. McConnell lacks the Republican votes in the Senate to pass partisan legislation, such as the Affordable Care Act repeal-and-replace measure. More importantly, however, he made the most politically daunting move of the year: killing the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in order to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch. The jury is still out on how much this will affect the long-term character of the Senate, but the body has been permanently altered, as the minority’s diminished influence over the confirmation process will lead to far more politically polarizing Supreme Court nominees in the future.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. A-

Republicans simply do not have the votes to make substantive achievements in the Senate, making the minority leader the most influential Democrat in politics and the bane of McConnell’s existence. Schumer has done a remarkable job holding his caucus in place, especially considering moderate Democrats like Manchin and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) are up for re-election in red states in 2018 and hesitant to stick to the party line. Schumer has also convinced Republicans like Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to vote with the Democrats on progressive issues such as Planned Parenthood funding.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) B

Grassley had one crucial job over the last few months: to ensure Trump’s nominees did not fail in the Senate. Chairing the Judiciary Committee put him on the front lines of two brutal fights: the confirmations of Gorsuch and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Since both nominees were confirmed, it is fair to say Grassley did a good job. Undoubtedly, he will have had a huge effect on the politics of America for years to come.

Overall, we did not pick perfectly. With new power players emerging every day, it was impossible in January to see where we would be today.

For example, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has a surprisingly strong presence in the Senate, due in large part to his partnership with McCain. Together, this dynamic duo has disagreed with the Trump administration in a number of areas, including the Russian interference in the 2016 election. We give him a B+.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also jumped into the spotlight as the de facto leader of the “resistance.” When McConnell rebuked Warren’s behavior at Sessions’ confirmation — saying, “nevertheless, she persisted” — the phrase quickly became a rallying cry for the progressive movement and catapulted Warren, a potential 2020 nominee, to the front lines against the administration. We give her an A-.

Politics is all about influence and how you use it. As we close the first 100 days of the Trump administration, all eyes are on Washington to see who will make the next move.

Christian Mesa and Aaron Bennett are sophomores in the College. This is the final installment of Playing Politics.

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