After 32 years in the Senate, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has earned a reputation as a wily legislative wizard and a cynical genius at outwitting Democrats.
So when McConnell invoked a little-used Senate rule to silence Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as she read a letter from Coretta Scott King denouncing President Trump's nominee for attorney general, Congress-watchers figured there had to be a clever strategy behind the move.
Sure, millions of people watched a video of Warren reading the letter just outside the Senate chamber. Sure, he turned her into a liberal folk hero. But maybe McConnell was trying to make Warren a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, figuring she'd be a weak candidate. Maybe he hoped to make her the face of the Democratic Party in the 2018 congressional election, to frighten Midwestern moderates.
Nope. Sometimes a blunder is just a blunder.
The reasons for McConnell's crackdown against Warren were pretty simple.
First, McConnell loathes the Massachusetts senator. He doesn't like her politics; he doesn't like her manner.
More pointedly, McConnell thinks Warren has been stepping outside the blurry boundaries of Senate courtesy for a while. "She has been warned multiple times, not just today," McConnell spokesman Don Stewart told NBC News.
Warren has attacked McConnell himself, accusing him of "bullying" the Senate in his role as majority leader.
Her tough speech Wednesday reviving charges of bigotry against then-still-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) was a last straw, aides said. As unlikely as it sounds when applied to the owlish McConnell, his move against Warren was a crime of passion.
There may also have been a practical reason McConnell told Warren to shut up and sit down: It was a gesture of loyalty toward Sessions — and not merely because Sessions, as a senator, had been a reliable conservative vote. McConnell and Trump have had an arm's length relationship until now; the Senate leader has publicly (if gently) criticized the president several times. Sessions, the new attorney general and a close Trump advisor, will be one of McConnell's main conduits to the White House.
Still, there's no question that the decision to silence Warren backfired — badly. The furor gained the Massachusetts senator far more attention than her otherwise routine speech would have if it hadn't been interrupted.
"She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted," McConnell said, inadvertently launching a meme that could become Warren's next campaign slogan.
The result: The majority leader turned the confirmation vote on Sessions, a loss for the Democrats, into a vehicle they could use to rally their partisan base. Male Democrats took the floor to read King's letter into the record. When McConnell didn't object, they said that was proof of his sexism. (His hostility was aimed at Warren, not all women, but that point was lost.)
Strange as it may seem, McConnell's late-night error is likely to have long-term consequences, as well.
One, a dent in the majority leader's reputation as a strategist, which was already a little tattered.
He's made mistakes before. In 2012, leading a GOP minority, he demanded an up-or-down vote on a debt ceiling bill in an attempt to divide Democrats — but when the Democrats outfoxed him by hanging together, he blocked his own proposal with an embarrassing filibuster.
In his first weeks as majority leader in 2014, he promised to open the legislative process to amendments from both sides — only to abandon the pledge when it became troublesome in practice.
In 2015, he bungled a renewal of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act when he didn't realize that a member of his own party, Rand Paul (R-Ky.), was determined to block the bill unless changes were made.
McConnell's Senate, in short, hasn't been as orderly and productive as he wanted.
More important, the episode showed Democrats that their quickest path to heroism, at least among their supporters and donors, is relentless resistance to Trump and McConnell.
They were headed in that direction already, thanks to the grassroots protests that erupted when some of them (including Warren) voted to confirm one or two Cabinet nominees.
A Politico/Morning Consult poll released last week showed that most Democrats want members of Congress to stick to their principles, even if that means blocking all legislation and nominees.
That's a problem for McConnell. For his Senate to look like a success, he needs to pass a tax reform bill, a replacement for President Obama's healthcare law, and a series of spending bills. If he keeps the rule requiring 60 votes for major legislation to advance, he'll need some Democratic votes. His collision with Warren, even though she represents the progressive edge of her own party, made that harder.
Instead, Democrats are now more likely to exploit the tools Senate rules give them to obstruct legislation, demand amendments and force Republicans to vote on measures that will embarrass them or divide them from Trump.
McConnell will label them obstructionists, but the Democrats know that obstructionism works — that when Congress is gridlocked, most voters will blame the party in the White House.
Where did they learn that? From McConnell, of course. That was the strategy he used to frustrate Obama; it was how he became majority leader in 2015. Now he must watch, and fume, as his opponents turn it against him.
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