Most of the headlines from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s speech at the American Constitution Society on Thursday were, understandably, about her attacks on Donald Trump.
- "Elizabeth Warren labels Donald Trump ‘nasty, thin-skinned fraud’ in speech," wrote the Boston Globe.
- "Elizabeth Warren Amps Up Her Onslaught on Donald Trump," said Mother Jones.
- Added the LA Times: "Elizabeth Warren: Donald Trump uses 'racism as his weapon.'"
Highlighting Warren’s rapid succession of fusillades against Trump makes sense. After all, outside of this election, you don’t often get sitting US senators publicly calling the other party's presidential nominee a "racist bully" who has "never risked anything for anyone and who serves no one but himself."
But Warren’s speech did much more than go after Trump. In her high-profile address, she pivoted from attacking the likely GOP nominee to attacking Republicans more generally, accusing the party’s leaders of orchestrating a prolonged "assault" on the independence of the federal judiciary in order to serve the wealthiest Americans.
For instance, when Warren highlighted Trump’s racist attacks against Judge Gonzalo Curiel, she said they were born from the same essential motivation as other mainstream Republican initiatives like the blockade of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination and the Citizens United decision on campaign finance: to help the richest of the rich.
"Donald Trump chose racism as his weapon," Warren said. "But his aim is exactly the same as the rest of the Republicans: to pound the courts into submission for the rich and the powerful."
Now, it should be noted that many leading Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have condemned Trump's remarks about Curiel. So it doesn’t seem entirely fair to blame them for what Trump has said there.
But the line does give us insight into how one of the leading progressives sees Trump, and it suggests how a Warren-led Democratic Party might respond in 2016 and beyond.
Sen. Warren: Donald Trump is a "Mitch McConnell kind of candidate"
Many Democrats have said that Trump’s rhetoric against Curiel amounts to proof that he’s uniquely unfit for the presidency, as a sign that he goes far beyond even what other Republicans are willing to say.
Warren didn’t take this approach. Over and over, she insisted that Trump’s comments about Curiel reflect the Republican attacks on the courts — the only difference being that they’re done with less tact.
From the speech:
Where do you suppose that Donald Trump got the idea that he can personally attack judges, regardless of the law, whenever they don't bend to the whims of billionaires and big businesses?
He's a Mitch McConnell kind of candidate … He is exactly the kind of candidate you'd expect from a Republican Party whose script for several years has been to execute a full-scale assault on the integrity of our courts, blockading judicial appointments so Donald Trump can fill them. Smearing and intimidating nominees who do not pledge allegiance to the financial interests of the rich and powerful.
Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell want Donald Trump to appoint the next generation of judges. They want those judges to tilt the law in favor of big businesses and billionaires like Donald Trump. They just want Donald Trump to quit being so vulgar and obvious about it.
Warren connected Trump’s attacks on Curiel to Republican obstructionism against the judicial branch going back years, citing their unwillingness to confirm appointees like District of Maryland nominee Paula Xinis.
She began the speech, for instance, by citing her Senate office’s new report, "Going to Extremes: The Supreme Court and Senate Republicans’ Unprecedented Record of Obstruction of President Obama’s Nominees." And she said wealthy corporations have flooded the political system with cash in an attempt to corrupt the judiciary.
"The purpose is also to hamstring the president's ability to protect consumers and workers, to hold large corporations accountable and promote equality," Warren said. "In other words, to undermine the fundamental principle of equal justice under law."
The political pros and cons of calling Trump a typical Republican
It seems pretty questionable whether obstructing federal judicial appointments is really comparable to Trump’s attacks against a judge’s heritage.
But whether you buy Warren’s interpretation or not, as a partisan political strategy it has distinct pros and cons.
On the one hand, attacking Trump by calling him a mainstream Republican is probably not going to be particularly devastating to Trump himself.
Hillary Clinton's best shot at a landslide victory might be peeling away centrist Republicans turned off by Trump. If that's the case, comparing Trump's most outlandish attacks to the policy decisions of the party’s leaders may not prove particularly convincing.
On the other hand, though, it could help Democrats in their effort to ensure that it’s not just Trump who goes down to defeat, but rather the Republican Party as a whole.