Mitch McConnell defended his decision to have the Senate formally vote to block Elizabeth Warren from speaking about the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general.

"She was warned," he said. "She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

The majority leader said the firebrand from Massachusetts broke the chamber's rules by reading past statements about Sessions from Coretta Scott King and Ted Kennedy.

"The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama," McConnell said, setting up a series of exceptionally rare roll-call votes to silence Warren until Sessions is confirmed.

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In these angry times, the activist base of the Democratic Party wants its politicians to be fighters.

When Republicans were in the wilderness, the party's base valued hostility towards Barack Obama more than ideological purity. That's how Donald Trump became the GOP's standard bearer.

The same principle will now apply for exiled Democrats. For the purposes of winning the 2020 nomination, it will be impossible to be too anti-Trump.

McConnell gagging Warren is one of the best gifts she could have received, and her birthday is not even until June.

It solidifies her bona fides as a fighter for progressive causes. Just hours before the showdown on the floor, which Warren had not planned for, the former Harvard Law professor announced that she will come out with a book this year called This Fight is Our Fight.

The brouhaha will be especially resonant because it touches race and gender, two of the most volatile fault lines in American life.

During Black History Month, McConnell specifically cited portions of a letter that the widow of Martin Luther King wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to Sessions's 1986 nomination to be a federal judge as a justification for the votes to rebuke Warren. "Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens," King wrote three decades ago, referencing prosecutions he oversaw as the US attorney for Alabama.

As Barack Obama's former top strategist, David Axelrod, puts it: "McConnell did @SenatorSessions no favours tonight by shutting down @SenWarren. Strong-armed tactics looked weak & defensive," he said via Twitter.

Sanctioning Warren also gives her underlying message a much bigger platform: She was speaking to a nearly empty chamber against a nominee who, no matter what, is going to get confirmed today. Very few people paid attention to similar floor speeches against Betsy DeVos the night before. Now millions of people will read the letter that King wrote.

Rachel Maddow interrupted her MSNBC show for a live telephone interview with Warren. "I've been red-carded on Senator Sessions," she lamented. The senator then went into another room in the Capitol and read King's letter aloud on Facebook Live. By morning, it had more than 5.2 million views.

This really could help Warren make inroads with African Americans: There are relatively few black voters in Massachusetts, but members of the community will determine who wins the South Carolina primary in three years (it's coming up faster than you think).

Bernie Sanders just might have stopped Hillary Clinton if he had figured out a way to break through her firewall with African-American voters. So there is no doubt that Warren World celebrated as groups like the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus quickly rallied behind her.

The top trending hashtags on Twitter were all about the donnybrook: #LetLizSpeak and #ShePersisted. An online clothing site for independent designers, RedBubble.com, is even selling "She Persisted" T-shirts and sweatshirts. Thousands of people are posting pictures of strong women throughout history with the caption #ShePersisted.

The clips, as well as this morning's cable TV coverage, are predictably brutal for the GOP. "The Senate voted . . . to tell . . . Warren to sit down - and shut up," says the lead story on Politico.

McConnell has a well-earned reputation as one of the savviest political operators of the post-war era, so it's hard to imagine he didn't know how his move would play.

To channel Marco Rubio, we should dispense with the fiction that McConnell doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing. So you cannot just dismiss it as a fit of pique.

Perhaps he is strategically trying to elevate Warren. Maybe he thinks that life will be harder for the 10 Democrats up for re-election next year in states Trump carried if Warren, not Chuck Schumer, is the face of their caucus.

She has been getting less buzz recently, compared to some of the younger whippersnappers who also want to run. Maybe, seeing this, McConnell concluded that Warren is ultimately the most beatable potential Democratic nominee in a head-to-head with Trump in 2020. He plays the long game that way. Just ask Merrick Garland.

The big-picture context matters here. It's no secret that the Senate is in the grips of an interminable partisan fever, a long-term illness that has enfeebled what was once the world's greatest deliberative body.

The boycotts of confirmation votes in committee last week and the blow-up yesterday night are simply symptoms of a chamber reaching its boiling point. Schumer voted against McConnell's wife to be Transportation secretary last week.

Furthermore, McConnell must show the 51 Republicans he leads that he can be a fighter. Many of his rank-and-file members are incensed at Democrats for slow-walking the confirmations, which has stopped them from being able to move onto big-ticket agenda items, such as replacing Obamacare. Because senators are people too, they get irritable and angry when they have to come into work early and stay late for multiple nights in a row. McConnell was channelling this anger.

The galvanising effect of McConnell's decision for Senate Democrats may be greater than whatever cathartic value their Republican counterparts take from it. With the exception of the most vulnerable red-state incumbents, the incident is going to make it that much harder for Democrats to vote for anything Trump or McConnell wants.