Sure, he’s a really buttoned-down guy working to prevent the Senate from getting totally bottled-up, but there are solid reasons to suspect Mitch McConnell wants a “Nevertheless, she persisted” hoodie as much as anyone.
The majority leader is obviously much more Brooks Brothers than Raygun. Still, he may well realize that his latest grandmaster move in the never-ending game of electoral chess requires ditching the rep stripe tie in favor of some printed-on-demand slogan swag.
After all, what would Machiavelli wear?
This is a counterintuitive view.
Conventional wisdom is the Kentucky Republican bungled things really badly this week, delivering an enormous public relations gift to the Democratic Party and one of its most prominent voices by having the Senate kick Elizabeth Warren out of the debate on confirming Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
This view was buttressed by McConnell’s mansplaining tone — “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted” — that spawned a thousand T-shirts and threatens to magnify a gender gap rooted in the view of GOP leaders as inherently sexist and out of touch with women voters.
But spontaneous fits of thin-skinned pique are not McConnell hallmarks. Instead, those include deliberation, dogged self-discipline, an unblinking eye on his objective and an overt imperviousness to wounding criticism — all traits helping to make The Turtle his enduring nickname.
So when he decided to silence Warren with the Senate’s rarely and inconsistently invoked Rule 19, which essentially boils down to “Thou shall not speak too ill of another senator,” the rebuttable presumption should be that he knew what he was doing.
Neither he nor his aides are wont to disclose McConnell’s genuine motivations, of course. But his career has revealed him to be plenty cunning and crafty enough to succeed with this supremely duplicitous strategy:
The more he runs her down on behalf of the right, the more he builds her up in the eyes of the left.
By doing enough work, early enough, to cement Warren’s reputation as the premier hero of the Democrats, he can play a pivotal role in propelling her toward becoming the party’s presumptive next presidential nominee — ideally, so far in advance that no one else is able to mount a viable candidacy against her.
And then he will have helped assure the rise of the challenger so many in his party currently view as the weakest possible White House opponent in 2020, when Warren will turn 71 and be in her eighth year as a Massachusetts senator.
Whether President Donald Trump is seeking re-election or the Republicans have turned to someone else, this thinking goes, Warren will remain an emblem of elite East Coast liberalism, economically and culturally, but she’ll no longer be a fresh face or an avatar of outsider thinking, and so has no obvious path to reclaiming the pivotal bloc of white, working-class Midwesterners who tipped the Electoral College balance last fall.
Rolling the dice
It’s a Machiavellian maneuver that’s fraught with potential problems. In this politically unprecedented Trump era the national mood might fundamentally change more than once before the next presidential election, for starters, and if his fellow Republicans get too fearful along the way then McConnell and his bank-shot, long-game strategy could get marginalized, if not ostracized.
But betting on his faith in his own partisan savvy, rather than his individual popularity, has generally served him well. Throughout his career, he’s been willing to endure oceans of personal opprobrium while sticking with big political gambles that produced substantial tactical victories.
He made his reputation in the Senate by leading a grinding series of filibusters against campaign finance restrictions in the 1980s and 1990s, even as more and more fellow Republicans distanced themselves from his efforts.
But the laws he worked so methodically to defeat or at least weaken have been largely neutralized by the courts, and his colleagues benefit daily from the resulting free flow of money in politics.
More recently, he took a considerable amount of grief within his own ranks for decreeing, just hours after Justice Antonin Scalia died last February, that his Supreme Court seat would only be filled by the winner of the presidential election.
But colleagues’ fears of punishment at the polls for such unprecedented obstructionism proved totally unfounded. Instead, his move energized his side’s core supporters more than the other side’s, and now the GOP’s reward is the opportunity to confirm someone who makes conservatives gleeful.
By making Warren into “a thing,” McConnell could be betting he’ll once again win the battle of the bases.
Yes, the majority leader has further riled up those who disdain everything Trump stands for and every one of his personnel decisions, none more so than putting Alabama’s junior senator in charge of the Justice Department.
And, to be sure, he’s compounded the fury by picking a fight with overtones of racial insensitivity (during Black History Month, he chose to call out Warren for reading aloud a letter Coretta Scott King wrote the Senate Judiciary Committee opposing Sessions for a federal judgeship in 1986) and sexism (having arranged the 49-43 vote Tuesday night to cite Warren, the first Rule 19 violation formally sanctioned in modern memory, he allowed several male senators on Wednesday to quote with impunity from the same letter.)
So he’s given women, African-Americans and progressives from the navy blue coasts a fresh reason to rally behind Warren as their champion — and to start by getting out their checkbooks. (MoveOn.org reported more than 9,000 members going online and donating $250,000 in the hours after Warren was admonished to “take her seat.”)
But Republicans, starting with McConnell’s senatorial rank and file but extending deep into the donor class and the Fox News viewership in the red states, have been given reason to be riled up as well.
Not only are they increasingly frustrated with the vitriol-infused slow-walking of Cabinet confirmations by the Democrats, they are also anxious about the future of the populist wave.
The unconventional forces that propelled Trump to victory could become unconventional once again, sweeping Republicans out of power unless they start producing tangible results soon. The best way to prevent this from happening, McConnell may be theorizing, is to push the Democrats to embrace the most imperfect leadership vessel possible — and someone who at the same times catalyzes opposition in the GOP.
Warren may be the majority leader’s choice to fit the bill. And even if she does not turn out to be the most beatable potential presidential nominee in 2020, McConnell could well see her as the ideally liberal face he wants to stand for the Democrats in 2018, when their fortunes will rest with the 10 senators running for re-election in increasingly conservative Trump states.