The winner of this week’s prime-time televised debate between likely 2020 presidential contenders Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz was clear: Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The Massachusetts Democrat punctured the political noise in a defining way late Tuesday when Senate Republicans abruptly silenced her reading of Coretta Scott King’s years-ago criticisms of Trump’s attorney general pick, Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Senate Republicans used a rarely invoked rule to interrupt Warren’s critique of Sessions’ civil rights record and then to prevent her from speaking on the floor until after his final confirmation vote Wednesday night.
“The senator will take her seat,” said the presiding officer Tuesday night in a dramatic display of political clumsiness as the chamber’s male leaders clipped a female senator on a racially charged issue that many noted came at the start of Black History Month.
Warren lingered in the chamber in silent protest before raising her voice outside by reading the whole King letter in a Facebook video, ensuring her words reached more than those watching late-night C-SPAN.
“READ THIS. Tonight the GOP silenced @ SenWarren AND Coretta Scott King. Below is the letter,” tweeted actress Kerry Washington to her nearly 4.5 million followers.
Twitter delved into the absurdity of Senate procedure, Rule XIX, that forbids senators from “impugning” the character of another senator, even if it means simply referring to allegations of racism in a letter from the widow of the slain civil rights leader.
And then there was the made-for-T-shirts quote from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as he justified the vote against Warren: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.”
By midday Wednesday #ShePersisted overcame #LetLizSpeak as a trending hashtag on Twitter.
Women, in particular, quickly seized on the slogan with mock campaign gear: “Nevertheless she persisted.”
The outcome produced powerful short-term gains for Democrats who are struggling to channel voter unrest over Trump’s agenda into common cause.
Fundraising was surely robust -- “we WILL make our voices heard,” Warren dashed off in an appeal to donors.
More than $250,000 poured in from Moveon.org donors overnight to Warren’s reelection bid, the group said.
“Decades ago, Jeff Sessions used his power to suppress the Black vote. We have every reason to think that if sworn in as attorney general, he’d do the same thing now,” the group wrote in a fundraising email. “Let’s turn this outrage into a fiasco for the GOP.”
But in the longer run it remains unclear if Warren’s voice is the best for the party as it tries to rebuild after the 2016 election that delivered Trump to the White House.
Democrats continue soul searching over their electoral losses, particularly the drift of formerly Democratic blue-collar voters into Trump’s orbit in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. House Democrats were meeting later Wednesday in Baltimore for an annual retreat where that conversation was expected to dominate.
Sanders beat Democratic rival Hillary Clinton during the primaries in some of those states, but whether the fiery populism he and Warren deliver can work more broadly with a general election audience remains to be tested.
It’s a difficult balancing act, particularly as the backslash against Trump has pushed many in the party further to the left. Even Warren hit her own stumbles with progressives when she voted for Trump’s choice of Ben Carson for Housing secretary at a time when many opponents of the White House want no compromises.
At this point, though, Democrats are happy to take their gains when they can.
Warren on Wednesday was making the rounds of media interviews in a victory lap of her moment.
“I just went to the Senate floor to do what I was supposed to do, and that is debate the nomination,” Warren told MSNBC. “This is Coretta Scott King talking about the facts as she saw them. That he used -- he, Jeff Sessions -- used his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens. She’s not calling names. She’s just describing what happened.”
Other senators took turns reading from King’s letter on the Senate floor, and none of the Republicans dared rebuke them.
Trump’s team at the White House declined to get involved, with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer saying the issue was best left to the Senate to resolve.
In fact, it has been rare for the Senate to invoke Rule XIX and several senatorial slights have gone without reprimand.
Most notably, Cruz, the Texas senator, essentially called McConnell a liar during a 2015 floor speech.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) criticized then-Democratic Sen. Harry Reid’s “cancerous” leadership, and more recently Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) mocked the tears Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) shed at a press conference criticizing Trump’s travel ban as fit for the “Screen Actors Guild awards.”
Senate record-keepers could not quickly find the last time Rule XIX was invoked, suggesting it may have been in the 1970s.
As for Cruz and Sanders, fresh from their CNN debate on Obamacare, they, too, were now talking about Elizabeth Warren
Cruz, the Texas senator who was the last rival to Trump in the 2016 GOP primary, called her attacks on Sessions “slanderous.”
“When the left doesn’t have any other arguments, they go and just accuse everyone of being a racist,” he told Fox News.
And Sanders stood by Warren’s side. “It is unconscionable that Sen. Mitch McConnell silenced Sen. Elizabeth Warren because she read a letter from Coretta Scott King,” the Vermont independent tweeted.