So let’s get this out of the way in advance. On Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasn’t playing chess at any dimension when he moved to block a speech from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Or, if he was, his brilliant move was to slide the king into position to be checked by the Democrats’ queen.
McConnell’s job is to get Trump’s Cabinet picks confirmed as quickly — and with as little friction — as possible. That effort is going slowly but still making ground, given the scale of opposition Trump has faced during his first few weeks in office. The biggest fight McConnell’s seen so far was with the education secretary nomination of Betsy DeVos, who was approved by a narrow (but calculatedly narrow) margin earlier on Tuesday. Everyone else? Not that big a deal.
The nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to be attorney general was similarly poised to glide toward approval, with some loud opposition but also with enough votes to carry the day. Like the teens in a horror movie, McConnell just needed to slip down a dark hallway without making a sound. But then he stumbled over a can.
You’re probably already aware of what happened, but here’s a synopsis. Warren began to read into the record a letter from Coretta Scott King, written in 1986 when Sessions was nominated to serve as a federal judge. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters,” King wrote. “For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
McConnell interrupted Warren. Under Rule 19 of the Senate, he argued, Warren was prohibited from criticizing Sessions as she was doing. That rule stipulates that senators are not allowed to “impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” In other words, solely because Sessions is a sitting senator, Warren can’t read a letter from someone else suggesting that his conduct or motives were not senatorial — even though the result of the debate would be that Sessions would no longer be a senator.
This move was a mistake.
It was a mistake because it was a male senator silencing a female senator which, however you may interpret that dynamic, overlaps significantly with the concerns of a segment of the American population that took to the streets on Jan. 21 by the millions to protest the administration.
It was a mistake because the words McConnell used were immediately seen as empowering by that group. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” he said — unwittingly providing the perfect battle cry for that movement. Just as Kellyanne Conway handed the idea of “alternative facts” to Trump’s political opponents, McConnell has now provided “nevertheless, she persisted” to an already fired-up opposition.
It was a mistake, too, because of the moment he chose to intervene. Warren was reading a letter from the wife of the country’s most famous civil rights leader weeks after the public holiday celebrating his life and at the beginning of Black History Month. Those things are mostly subtextual, but one of the main lines of argument against Sessions’ nomination has been concerns over his history on issues of race. That nomination to the federal bench in the 1980s was derailed over those concerns; Warren was hoping to highlight them in her speech.
It was a mistake because McConnell’s interjection drew infinitely more attention to Warren’s remarks than they would otherwise have received. This is known as the Streisand Effect, after Barbra Streisand tried to get photos of her house in Malibu removed from a collection of images. The result of that effort was to spread the photos widely, both out of curiosity and out of defiance. That’s what McConnell has done: Far more people are now aware of King’s 1986 objections than otherwise would have been.
It was a mistake because drawing more attention to the racial politics at play will only serve to energize another part of the Democratic base: African Americans. Rev. William Barber, a vocal progressive leader from North Carolina, has already cited McConnell’s move as evidence that “we must deal with the issue of systemic racism in America.”
So what’s the argument that this wasn’t a mistake? That McConnell’s making some chess move that perhaps we can’t see?
He’s setting up Warren as the face of the opposition? Fine, but she already holds that position to a large degree. That the Republicans want to run against her in 2020 and this helps get her there? Okay, but there will be a lot of other opportunities to move her toward that goal without undercutting a critical vote for the administration.
It’s sort of amazing that we’ve gone from “members of Congress are bumbling dopes” to “my side is represented by Pattonesque geniuses and yours are extras from ‘Dumb and Dumber’” over the course of a decade or two. Neither of those views of Congress is correct, of course, but I think it’s generally far safer to assume that something that looks like a mistake was a mistake than to assume it was the lighting of a fuse on a years-long political bombshell.
McConnell’s job is to get Jeff Sessions to the Justice Department. If he chose to make that job harder in order to make it slightly more likely that Elizabeth Warren will run for president in three years, that doesn’t really seem like great chess playing either.