Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is not a stupid man. In fact, he's quite astute, most especially politically. That's why it seems so stunning to me that he made such an inept move yesterday.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren was making a speech highly critical of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) in regards to his nomination as Attorney General. As part of that speech, she quoted from a -- in the Senate records -- written by Coretta Scott King that had strongly opposed Session in 1986 when he was then-nominated to be a federal judge. (He was subsequently not approved.) During her reading of the letter, Sen. McConnell rose to claim that Ms. Warren was in violation of Senate Rule 19, by impugning on the integrity of a sitting senator. She objected, but the Republican chair ruled in Mr. McConnell's favor. As a result, Sen. Warren not only couldn't finish her speech, but she is barred from speaking during the rest of the debate on Sessions.
This strikes me as an utterly lunatic move on McConnell's part. For two reasons, both lunatic.
And by the way, ithese two reasons don't even include that Mitch McConnell took the ground of someone who is likely going to be a leading Democratic candidate for President of the United States, Elizabeth Warren, and built her a lovely, tall and very visible platform high enough for everyone to see, even if they weren't looking in the first place.
It's worth noting that you've done something truly impressive when you can substantively boost the presidential profile of one of your leading opponents and yet it's not even one of the two reasons your action was so lunatic. No, no, boosting the profile of Elizabeth Warren and making her A Living Cause for both Democrats and independents to rally behind was just a mere prelude, a pre-curtain overture, an hors d'oeuvre to the main course. Tosh, boosting Sen. Warren was merely thoughtless and just really bad politics. She may run for president, she may not run, and there will be others running. The two reasons, though, are on another level, taking his efforts to the Land of Lunacy.
First, if Mitch McConnell had let Sen. Warren continue her speech, about 800 people watching C-SPAN would have seen it. Yes, the letter would have been entered in the Senate record...but the letter was already in the Senate record! But by objecting and invoking Senate Rule 19, McConnell took an profoundly insignificant moment, one most probably lost to the ages, and turned it into a national story. And not just was the point of the story made a national headline -- but it brought national attention to the actual, scathing letter that Coretta Scott King had written and provided an outlet for news reporters to read from it on the air, for newspapers to publish it, and for websites to provide links directly to the letter on their homepages for the public to read in full. And allowed for this story, which would have been gone about four minutes after Ms. Warren sat down last night to last as a national story for a significantly long time.
That's bad enough. Inexplicable enough. We could stopped right there after slapping our collective heads and saying bewildered, "Mitch, buddy, what are earth were you thinking??!" That would have been enough. Dayenu. And our cup of lunacy would have been filled. We'd have needed nothing more. But this was so lunatic that there is more. There's another reason entirely.
The second reason is that the nomination of Jeff Sessions is being challenged so strongly because of his history of intolerance and as a racist -- the very reason he had been denied a federal judgeship -- and here is the Republican Party, in its defense of this highly-controversial man, blocking a letter from being read written by the widow of the assassinated Rev. Martin Luther King, a Civil Rights leader so highly-honored he won a Nobel Prize for Peace and had a national holiday created for him, and she herself a woman who is one of the most admired and respected in the Civil Rights Movement of history. If anything sends up flares with a message that Jeff Sessions and the Republican Party are as intolerant to race today as they were 50 years ago, they couldn't have picked a better example than this if they had built it intentionally from scratch and shined a battalion of klieg lights on it so intense in order to make sure it could be spotted from the depths of outer space. And now add that the Republican leader tried to silence a leading woman reading a letter by a respected woman, and you can toss in him energizing the Women's Movement -- which we just saw two weeks ago with 4 million marching is pretty darn energized already -- even far more, and turning up the wattage on those bright spotlights even more.
And all over a letter that was already offered into evidence and exists as part of the official Senate record.
There are many battles worth fighting that are clear-cut. There are many battles worth fighting even though the cause is uphill. But some battles that are fought for the most minor, pointless reason turn out to be so thoroughly counter-productive that they risk turning the dying embers of campfire into a full-blown losing war.
Mitch McConnell not only likely created a cause of outrage that made it possible, if not probable that some Democrats in the Senate who were on the edge about whether or not to vote for Jeff Sessions will now vote against him, but planted a flag in the ground for all Americans to see how the Republican Party actually and bluntly feels about Civil Rights, fairness, women, free speech, and decency, and built it high enough that those in the public who had been unsure but at least willing to look can now see it waving ignominiously. And helped boost their opponent in the process.
On a personal note, though, I'd like to thank the Majority Leader for allowing me to use the word, "ignominiously." I don't get the opportunity too often. But sometimes, it just perfectly fits.
After leaving the Senate floor, Elizabeth Warren read the Coretta Scott King letter on Facebook live. As I write this, the video has been watched 3.4 million times. C-SPAN dreams of having 3.4 million viewers for a whole year.
And the very next day, Sen. Jeff Merkley read from the same Coretta Scott King letter on the Senate floor -- yes, the very same letter that Sen. Warren was reprimanded and silenced for reading. Yet Merkley wasn't stopped. The optics of a man being allowed to read the exact same thing that Republicans blocked a woman from reading is...well, let's just say really, really, really bad.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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