Mitch McConnell's big mistake

Story highlights

  • Errol Louis: McConnell's silencing of Elizabeth Warren delivered a rallying point to Democrats
  • Louis: Fight on Senate floor gives Warren cred as leader in battle for Democrats' direction

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The effort by Republican leaders to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday was a Pyrrhic victory -- a short-term win within the Senate chamber. But it has also given Warren and the Democrats a rallying point from which to defy the Trump administration -- not just on the Jeff Sessions confirmation, but on others to come -- and to paint the GOP as hostile to civil rights.

Lastly, it boosts Warren's cred as a leader within a Democratic Party facing a power vacuum.
As of this writing, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has enough votes to get Sessions approved as the next attorney general. But McConnell's use of an obscure parliamentary rule to prohibit Warren from speaking against the nomination on the Senate floor made Republicans look like tone-deaf bullies.
    Warren was, after all, reading the words of the late Coretta Scott King on the subject of voting rights. "Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters," King wrote in 1986. "For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship."
    McConnell deemed Warren's reading a violation of Senate rules of decorum and decreed her unable to participate in any further debate about the Sessions nomination.
    "She was warned. She was given an explanation," McConnell said. "Nevertheless, she persisted."
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    Those lines instantly became a social media rallying cry, inspiring the hashtag #shepersisted and giving birth to calls for Warren to run for president in 2020.
    For her part, Warren simply proceeded to read the letter at a location off the Senate floor and in a Facebook Live video post that soon garnered more than 1 million views. TV and radio hosts also read the letter on the air, adding thousands of more views and giving the condemnation of Sessions a much wider airing than Warren ever could have managed on her own.
    There's an obvious lesson here for McConnell about the perils of triggering a social media backlash. Equally important is the boost the incident gives to Democratic efforts to organize resistance to the Trump agenda.
    The Democrats currently lack formal leadership -- the party is still trying to select a permanent chair -- and the power vacuum is being filled by street protesters and other activists pressing Democratic officials to resist Trump's agenda on immigration, the environment and more.
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    Warren's fight on the floor gives her an early and memorable leadership role in the emerging battle for the party's direction. A respected Harvard law professor, she is likely to seek a similar high-profile role in the coming debate over Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch.
    Warren also provides a potent reminder of the millions of women who took to the streets the day after Trump's inauguration, who are organizing a follow-up national demonstration. The effect of the surge in women's political activity has already reached the Senate: Two Republican women, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, broke with the leadership to vote against the nomination of Betsy DeVos, nearly sinking her bid to become education secretary.
    All of which is to say that McConnell will need to move more cautiously in the coming weeks if he wants to avoid revving the buzz saw of Democratic opposition into high gear.