Mitch McConnell, the wiliest of wily old politicians, made the un-wiliest move imaginable on the Senate floor. And all it did — besides needlessly offending millions of people who weren’t paying the least bit attention — was to breathe life into the devastated opposition party.
You’ve no doubt seen the video. You’ve probably already ordered the “Nevertheless, She Persisted” T-shirt. And you wonder what the hell McConnell, the Senate majority leader, could have been thinking.
To recap, McConnell and fellow Senate Republicans told Elizabeth Warren, the most prominent Trump critic in the Senate, to, in effect, sit down and shut up. In Archie Bunker’s words, to stifle yourself, Edith. They not only made her sit down — “The senator will take her seat” — but they told her she couldn’t talk again that night.
Yes, they put her in the corner, and as we all know, nobody puts baby in the corner.
Strangely — and it was beyond strange — McConnell and company made this outrageous order in the name of Senate decorum. They pulled out the most arcane of the many arcane Senate rules –Rule 19, as it were — in which senators are not allowed to impugn the motives of fellow senators. By the way, no one can remember the last time Rule 19 was invoked.
More strangely, and absurdly, they did it while debating about Jeff Sessions — a senator — whose confirmation for attorney general was before them. In other words, you couldn’t criticize the person about whom you were debating. That would be not just Rule 19, but Catch-22. Stranger still, they did it while Warren, the liberal firebrand, was reading a letter from civil rights icon Coretta Scott King.
So, here we have it. Warren couldn’t impugn a senator who was once refused a federal judgeship in 1986 by a Republican Senate over what was then seen as racist behavior, as outlined – I’m sure you’re ahead of me — in a scathing 1986 letter from Mrs. King, the late widow of Martin Luther King, Jr.
And what did McConnell accomplish? Aside from encouraging millions to read King’s letter and aside from rallying Warren’s many followers, he energized a demoralized Democratic base. He insulted a woman, and, yes, it was an insult. And he said, during Black History Month, that an African-American’s icon’s letter not only was indecorous and impugned the good senator, but that it wasn’t fit to be read on the Senate floor. (Warren was reading before a nearly-empty chamber and a few C-SPAN devotees. She later read it on Facebook, as viewed by millions. And Sen. Tom Udall read the entire letter on the Senate floor, notably without being censured.)
The Warren putdown led to several votes on the Senate floor, including one on whether to allow Warren to speak again. It went down along party lines, meaning, yes, our own Senator Cory Gardner, whom we were once assured would be a leader in crossing the aisle to find common solutions, voted to shut up and shut down both Elizabeth Warren and Coretta Scott King.
Now, there are some who think that McConnell was playing multi-dimensional chess and that this move was designed to help Warren become the face of the Democratic Party. If so, he maybe went one dimension too far. I don’t know if Warren (full disclosure here: My law professor daughter was a Warren student and protege) plans to run in 2020, but I know that what Democrats need right now is someone to rally the oft-defeated troops and that Warren is exactly the right person for that job.
I mean, Democrats are demoralized, and they should be. They have lost all levers of federal power. They lost a chance to get a majority on the Supreme Court for the first time in many years. They don’t have the votes to stop any of Trump’s more absurd cabinet choices — Sessions being among them.
And so they talk and they stamp their feet and they do all night, not-quite-filibuster talkathons which are followed by losing votes. Meanwhile, Donald Trump and his little White House team are in charge, even as they repeatedly swing wildly from absurd to dangerous to laughable to press-bashing to massacre-inventing to judge-bashing to, yes, Nordstrom-bashing.
This is how bad it is for Democrats. On the night before the Sessions talkathon, Democrats had tried to stop the altogether unqualified Betsy DeVos from being confirmed as secretary of education. DeVos not only embarrassed herself at her brief confirmation hearing with her lack of basic knowledge on public education, she had been an avowed enemy of public education. Education secretary is usually a slam-dunk nomination, but the base — you remember the base — demanded that Democrats fall on their sword for this one.
They fell. They got two Republicans to fall with them. It was a 50-50 tie, one that Vice President Mike Pence dramatically broke in favor of DeVos. It was yet another humiliation.
There are many fights to come. According to my math, Democrats will lose most of them – or, if they don’t lose, will have to compromise for something far less than they want.
Elections, as they say, do have consequences. But it’s also true, as they also say, that words matter. Like these:
From Warren: “I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate.”
And from McConnell: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
And from Hillary Clinton who retweeted McConnell’s words before adding: “So must we all.”
Photo illustration by Elvert Barnes via Flickr: Creative Commons