WASHINGTON — Defensive Republicans were left to pick through the fallout Wednesday of their move to silence Democrat Elizabeth Warren Tuesday night during Senate debate, as early signs indicated that the GOP effort backfired and would hamper efforts to paint Warren and her Democratic allies as extremists.
Democrats sputtered outrage throughout the day, claiming that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell unfairly muzzled Warren in what they variously described as a sexist, un-American, and undemocratic attack to stifle open debate on President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions. Sessions was ultimately confirmed Wednesday.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders demanded that McConnell apologize to Warren. That did not happen.
The result was a wave of sympathetic social media attention for Warren, who — without McConnell’s intervention — otherwise would have been relegated to a typical midevening snoozefest on C-SPAN with little notice.
‘‘This is not what America is about — silencing speech, especially in this chamber,’’ Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer said.
The incident dominated media coverage Wednesday as Republicans tried in vain to shift the focus to a call for civility and a fair review of Trump’s nominees. GOP reaction to their botched strategy ranged from I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it to a full-throated defense of Sessions.
Democrats treated Sessions “like dirt” throughout his confirmation process, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch fumed, revealing the raw feelings that the fight over Sessions’ nomination exposed in the once-clubby chamber.
“Jeff Sessions is a very fine person and they all admit that, but I guess because he’s from Alabama, they think every white male is a racist or at least might be,” he said. “I just think that’s wrong.”
The episode unfolded Tuesday night as Warren, during debate on Sessions’ nomination, read aloud from a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., that accused Sessions of racist behavior while he was US attorney in Alabama. In response, Republicans invoked an obscure, rarely used Senate provision — called Rule 19 — that prohibits one senator from impugning the integrity of another. The Senate voted along party lines to silence Warren for the remainder of deliberations on Sessions’ nomination.
Rule 19 was adopted in 1902 after two South Carolina lawmakers got into a fistfight on the Senate floor. Tuesday night’s rebuke of Warren was the first time in at least 40 years that such a vote had been called, Senate aides said. Usually, at most, a warning is issued.
Far from being chastened, Warren and other Democrats immediately recognized an opportunity in the GOP overreach. Warren aides devised a hashtag, #LetLizSpeak, and Democratic leadership aides messaged other senators and aides to start using it — sending it to the top of the trending charts on Twitter.
Warren streamed live video of herself on Facebook reading the King letter in a hallway just outside the Senate chamber; it attracted 1.3 million views in less than an hour, and millions more by Wednesday morning.
“I guarantee you if you could look in their minds they regret doing it,” Schumer said in a brief interview Wednesday.
As additional evidence that the GOP regretted its move, Democrats pointed out that, after the Warren incident, Republicans backed down and mounted no further objections when several other Democrats read the same 1986 letter by King.
The potent combination of gender and race involved in Warren’s rebuke helped amplify the moment.
Hillary Clinton tweeted about the controversy. She directly quoted McConnell’s defense for acting against Warren — a quote that became a motivating phrase on social media for Democrats: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
“So must we all,” Clinton added.
The GOP’s miscue seemed to at least temporarily set back a Republican strategy in recent weeks that has focused on painting Warren as an extreme, rage-filled liberal who is dragging fellow Democrats too far left. A tried-and-true tactic, similar moves targeting Nancy Pelosi and the late Ted Kennedy helped the GOP win congressional seats and raise money for years.
Republican strategists still see Warren as a lightning rod. Republicans continued to paint her as a liberal bogeyman to tarnish Democratic senators in red states, such as Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin.
“Tammy Baldwin’s true colors have been on full display lately, and her following radical Elizabeth Warren’s lead on Judge Gorsuch is just the latest example,” read a press release sent out Wednesday afternoon by the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, National Republican Senatorial Committee, hitting the junior senator from Wisconsin for announcing she will oppose Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
Baldwin is up for reelection in 2018 in a state that Trump narrowly won, one of 10 Senate Democrats running in Trump states.
The NRSC launched its first ads of the 2018 campaign late last week with spots targeting a handful of Democrats, including Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, over Gorsuch. It’s just the start of an aggressive media campaign planned for the months ahead.
Some GOP strategists said all the attention on Warren this week isn’t good for those vulnerable Democrats, the current media frenzy notwithstanding.
“Lot of folks overlooking that elevating Warren’s profile as the de facto leader of Senate Dems isn’t helpful for red state Dems in 2018,” tweeted Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist. “And yes millions of very liberal Democrats love Elizabeth Warren but how does that help [West Virginia’s Joe] Manchin, [North Dakota’s Heidi] Heitkamp etc next year? Hint, it doesn’t.”
Warren’s image as a progressive gladiator took some hits throughout the bitter 2016 Democratic primary, in which she declined to endorse either candidate until Clinton had clinched the nomination. More recently, she faced a backlash from liberals upset she voted to confirm Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
All seemed forgiven Tuesday night.
Speculation about her running for president in 2020 reached a fevered pitch.
“No. I’m open to doing my job,” Warren said when asked on CNN Wednesday whether she was eyeing a White House bid. “And that is to debate whether or not Jeff Sessions should be attorney general of the United States.”