What was McConnell's strategy in shutting down Elizabeth Warren?

Duane Patterson and Ed Morrissey have already written about McConnell’s unusual invocation of Rule XIX last night to block Warren from reading an old letter by Coretta Scott King accusing Jeff Sessions of wanting to keep blacks from voting. McConnell’s move was bold; it was dramatic; it was … not at all obvious what he or the GOP would stand to gain from it, as it instantly made Warren’s speech a media sensation and gave the left ammo for a few news cycles of “racism/sexism” whinging. Ben Shapiro doesn’t get it either:

1. They Gave Her What She Wanted. Obviously, Warren wanted to be gagged. She’s a partisan troll, and she seeks the virtue of victimhood in order to promote her agenda. And it’s not as though the left has been ignoring King’s letter – for weeks, they’ve been promoting it. Sessions has already faced questions about all the issues raised by King’s letter, and has spent time debunking it. Why would it be so tough for a Republican to get up after Warren and point out her demagogic lies rather than falling back on the Senate rules of civility?

2. Republicans Say Civility No Longer Matters. You can’t elect Donald Trump president of the United States and then stand on ceremony when it comes to civility. You just can’t. One of the fundamental premises of Trump’s candidacy was that Republicans no longer should care about civility – that punching back requires violating those rules sometimes. That’s an argument for which I actually have some sympathy. But playing the “we don’t need no stinking civility” game and then turning around and invoking Senate civility rules to defend your own seems hypocritical. Because it is.

Duane suggested that Rule XIX might have been fresh in McConnell’s mind because he’s been considering the possibility of using the “two-speech rule,” which also comes from Rule XIX, to defeat a Democratic filibuster of Neil Gorsuch. Could be, but (a) McConnell is famously a master of Senate procedure, who likely wouldn’t have needed reminding that Senators are forbidden from impugning the motives of their colleagues, and (b) whether or not the rule was fresh in his mind doesn’t explain why he chose to use it, given Shapiro’s prudential arguments against doing so. McConnell surely understood that shutting Warren down would give tons of needless extra publicity to her attack on Sessions. So why didn’t he let it slide and either respond to her attacks on the merits, as Shapiro suggests, or just ignore them, knowing that Sessions is destined to be confirmed today anyway?

It’s tempting to believe that McConnell pulled this because he wanted free press for Warren, knowing that she has her eye on 2020. In other words, he’s trying to help pick Trump’s next opponent early by crowning Warren as a leader of “the Resistance.” Democrats succeeded spectacularly in picking their opponent back in 2012 when Claire McCaskill’s team laid off Republican Todd Akin in the primaries and attacked his GOP opponents instead. Akin won, and then McCaskill made short work of him in the general election when he imploded over his “legitimate rape” comments. On the other hand, Democrats last year also tried to pick their opponent by laying off Trump in the primaries for the most part, expecting he’d be another Akin-esque gaffe machine in the general and would be a pushover for Hillary. You know how that turned out. Trying to pick your opponent is a strategy that’s usually (but not always) too clever by half.

To my eyes, Warren seems more Trump-ish than Akin-ish. She’s not hugely popular back home in Massachusetts, but then Trump’s favorable ratings were poor throughout the general election campaign and he came through. Warren’s smart, she’s able to galvanize the left, and she has the same focus on old-fashioned class warfare that Bernie Sanders had, which could help Democrats claw back votes from white blue-collar voters with her as the presidential nominee. She has weaknesses too, of course — purely as a retail matter, she often comes off like an angry librarian incensed that your book is a day overdue — but I don’t know why McConnell or Trump would have a strong preference to face her in 2020 such that it’s worth elevating her now. Wouldn’t you rather face Cory Booker, who oozes insincerity and whose charisma shortage is amplified by the constant comparisons to Obama? Why make Warren a martyr-hero to the left now? I don’t get it.

It could be that McConnell’s actual strategy was simpler and straightforward. Maybe he thought the righty base, as well as his new partner in the White House, would get a kick out of seeing a prominent Democrat punished for her obstruction tactics. Dems are playing hardball in delaying confirmation of Trump’s nominees as long as possible, so here’s McConnell playing hardball by making Warren sit down and shut up. Pandering to the base isn’t usually what you expect of Mitch the Knife but it never hurts to build a little goodwill with the grassroots — and the president. Exit question: Er, what’s gotten in Trump superfan Matt Drudge? You’d expect him to be cheering Warren’s rebuke this morning, but instead he’s tweeting things like, “No Obamacare repeal, tax cuts! But Republicans vote to shut Warren? Only know how to be opposition not lead! DANGER”. If McConnell’s move played badly even with Trump’s strongest supporters, maybe this was a wholesale strategic failure.