Warren Rallies Dems Against Trump, to What End?

Warren Rallies Dems Against Trump, to What End?
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The Republican rebuke of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday was widely seen by her admirers as a gift to Democratic Party.

But the Trojan horse was a gift, too.

In the era of Donald Trump, getting control of the national megaphone is not easy. But Warren, a former Harvard professor who has emerged as a leading player in progressive politics, is something of an exception.

And her reprimand on the Senate floor has become another rallying cry for the anti-Trump resistance. For Democrats feeling demoralized in the minority and looking for a way up off the mat, the Tuesday night spat had it all: A white male Republican silencing a liberal female senator after she read a letter from the late widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. criticizing Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the administration’s nominee for attorney general.

What's more, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's justification for terminating Warren's floor speech seemed almost a tailor-made campaign slogan for feminists: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

"She persisted" quickly became a social media sensation, displayed on T-shirts and over pictures of trailblazing women of the past. National and state party Democrats, as well as outside groups, furiously fundraised off the debacle. Warren's Facebook post Tuesday night, in which she continued her speech against Sessions, has been viewed more than 9 million times, and she did a media blitz with major cable networks, as well as an interview on the television talk show “The View.”

Her party colleagues flocked to the Senate floor Wednesday to read Coretta Scott King's letter, written in 1986 when Sessions was nominated for a judicial post. Bernie Sanders and other senators made videos defending Warren, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus slammed Republicans for attempting to "silence" the wife of the most famous civil rights leader "from the grave."

By Wednesday, conventional wisdom determined that McConnell's attempt to quiet Warren not only failed, but also backfired spectacularly. But such a conclusion may be premature.

While Democrats are galvanized by the episode, Republicans don't appear at all bothered by it. Sessions was ultimately confirmed on a largely party-line vote Wednesday, and Democratic opposition was always a hollow threat. What's more, all of the 49 Republican senators present in the chamber Tuesday night voted to rebuke Warren. And in interviews with various outlets the following day, GOP senators stood by their decision, arguing that Warren had violated the arcane Rule 19 by "impugning" the character of a fellow senator through her lengthy floor speech, which included quotes from King and also the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who presided over the Senate Tuesday night and issued the first warning against Warren, promoted his own involvement in ending her floor speech. "The Senator will take her seat," Daines wrote on Twitter, with a link to the video clip.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, an outspoken critic of Trump, said the quieting of Warren "was long overdue."

"I mean, she is clearly running for the nomination in 2020," Graham told the Mike Gallagher radio show, according to CNN.

Whether a White House bid is on the horizon or not, Republicans say they welcome the spotlight on Warren.

"It's to Republicans’ benefit to elevate her as the voice for the Democratic Party, particularly heading into 2018," said GOP Strategist Brian Walsh, referring to the upcoming midterm elections in which Democrats will be defending seats in 10 states that Trump won. "Her views being taken as the mainstream of current Democratic thought would put her red state colleagues in a difficult situation."

McConnell supporters often describe the majority leader as one of the smartest strategists in the party who rarely miscalculates in his moves. His decision to invoke the rarely used Rule 19 against Warren was likely intended to keep his chamber in order and demonstrate his party's ability to fight and suppress the opposition. The move also identified Warren as the face and future of the Democratic Party, and thus a foil for Republicans.  

While Warren is considered among the most liberal members of the Senate and represents one of the bluest states in the union, her portrayal as the Antichrist for Trump voters may not be as simple. Her brand of economic populism made her a vaunted campaign surrogate for Democrats in the past midterm and presidential campaigns, even in red and Rust Belt states where most Democratic leaders were unpopular and unwelcome. In 2014, for example, she campaigned in West Virginia and Kentucky for candidates who didn't want to be seen with then-President Barack Obama.

Of course, her efforts were unsuccessful. Democrats lost the Senate majority and Trump won the presidency, despite the star power Warren brought to the energy-lacking Hillary Clinton campaign. Still, the results of the 2016 election caution against underestimating the political appeal of an opponent. In other words, Republicans could come to regret their promotion of Warren, just as they might have regretted their dismissal of Trump.

For now, though, Democrats looking to harness the grassroots energy that has sprung up since the inauguration of Trump are hitching their wagons to Warren. They argue that McConnell's strategy wasn't to elevate Warren, but to shield Trump's nominee from criticism over race and civil rights. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer joined other senators in supporting Warren on the Senate floor Wednesday. Rising party stars such as California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is often mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, deployed her own series of tweets to accompany a floor speech defending Warren and rebuking Sessions. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who tried to raise his own profile by testifying against Sessions, also joined in.

Sen. Sanders called for McConnell to apologize, and pledged, "This is a fight we will continue."

The word "fight" is a word commonly associated with Warren. She wrote a book earlier in her term called "A Fighting Chance." And on Tuesday, before she and McConnell clashed on the Senate floor, her publisher announced she has a new one coming out this spring: "This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class."

Warren's elevation as something of a liberal martyr this week also comes just two weeks after she received widespread backlash from her base for supporting Ben Carson, Trump's nominee for secretary of Housing and Urban Development. She has also voted for U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Warren's efforts to thwart Sessions’ confirmation always appeared in vain. Republicans have been united in their support of their colleague, and moderate Democrats such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia also backed him. And Democrats don't have the power to block Cabinet nominees. The question remains, then, to what extent can Warren lead the charge in harnessing the grassroots energy when it comes to enacting new policy (for which Trump will need bipartisan support) and gaining electoral successes in 2018 and 2020? And can the party can stay energized for that long?

Wednesday night, Warren upped the ante on Twitter: “There’s no Rule 19 to silence me from talking about Jeff Sessions anymore. So let me say loudly & clearly: This is just the beginning.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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