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Over the weekend Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill got some attention for a comment she made in a New York Times article which implied that when it came to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade treaty, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was some kind of outsize ego who was vocally fighting the treaty only for the attention:

“She has sought the spotlight the most,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri. “I’m as confused as you are,” she added, when asked why Ms. Warren had emerged as a central player on the trade issue. For example, she said: “No one has worked harder on these issues over the years than Sherrod Brown. But I remember what my father told me when I got into politics: ‘Remember what you’re doing is not always fair.’ “

McCaskill probably made more news when she made a backhanded attempt to distance herself from the remarks, tweeting:

We all seek attention (including me!) in Washington. Elizabeth Warren deserves it. She is strong, smart, and focused,

8:07 AM – 16 May 2015

You’ve probably noticed that this much-publicized “backtracking” carefully avoided an actual apology, but instead subtly doubled down on the original insult with an airy “we all do it.” It’s not surprising that the Times chose McCaskill’s comment to underline its article which seems to have been designed to undercut Warren’s opposition to the TPP. The subtext of the article was that Warren was resorting to what the Times reporter, Jennifer Steinhauer, represented as  Warren’s reliance on opportunistic media-mongering in an effort to horn in and steal the glory from more legitimate foes of the treaty:

Yet away from the Capitol, it is all Elizabeth Warren. Her public relations strategy has been textbook Warren: near exclusive use of liberal news media outlets like Rachel Maddow of MSNBC as receptive sounding boards for her ideas, appearances at academic forums and liberal think tanks, and a narrow focus on her favorite targets – in this case, her concerns that the bill would fray signature financial regulations.

Echoes of President Obama, perhaps, who doesn’t want us to forget that Senator Warren is, after all, a “politician like everybody else.” Add in the Times article and Senator McCaskill’s ironic effort to get in on the show, and it all begins to sound like a put-up job, an effort by proponents of the TPP to undermine one of the most effective spokesmen against it – not to mention one of the best advocates of the progressive vision that so scares cautious politicians like Claire McCaskill. The article also implies that the meticulous Warren is more noise than substance and compares her to the worst of Republican ideologues.

Steinhauer, in a nodd to “fair” journalism, does admit, sotto voce, that Warren does actually have a dog in the fight, given her fears that the TPP could work against hard-won advances in financial regulation. Steinhauer, however, attempts to cast this concern as somehow self-interested, a “narrow focus on her favorite targets,” an implication that is demonstrably incorrect. Just today, for example, Warren’s staff released a report that exhaustively documents the consistent failure to enforce provisions in past treaties designed to protect workers and environment.

We know, politics is a nasty game – or so we are assured by folks who are busy cleaning the slime off their hands – and McCaskill is one of the fourteen Senators who are supporting the TPP. That explains why she might be willing to undermine Warren. But how to explain the mean girl tone? Why is she so willing to cooperate with folks who rather clearly hope to undermine Warren as a progressive spokesman, “a thorn” in the president’s side?

Is McCaskill just helping with the President’s dirty work? Or could it have something to do with the fact that probably nobody in the Democratic party would ever try to draft McCaskill to run for President – an honor accorded to Warren in her first term? McCaskill has charted a careful course, taken few risks. Do you think she expects to be rewarded for surviving Missouri’s admittedly hellacious political climate by turning her back on some of the most important progressive issues? Do you think maybe she resents just a little the adulation that the brilliant, charismatic Warren has garnered in so short a time? If so, I’ve got some news for McCaskill: leaders take risks, lesser people take pot-shots.