Is Elizabeth Warren Just an Ordinary Politician?

Hero-worship is always risky in politics, because if you put all your hopes on one politician, eventually you're sure to be disappointed. And so it has come that Elizabeth Warren, who inspires more dewy-eyed infatuation than any other current Democratic officeholder, may have given her liberal admirers a reason to feel dismayed. This article from the Cape Cod Times is a week old, but it's just now making the rounds, and it shows that on one subject, Warren isn't quite the same strong progressive some might hope her to be. Here's what happened when a constituent criticized her vote to send an additional $225 million to Israel during the recent military conflict in Gaza:

Warren told Bangert she appreciated his comments, but "we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one."

"I think the vote was right, and I'll tell you why I think the vote was right," she said. "America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren't many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world."

Warren said Hamas has attacked Israel "indiscriminately," but with the Iron Dome defense system, the missiles have "not had the terrorist effect Hamas hoped for." When pressed by another member of the crowd about civilian casualties from Israel's attacks, Warren said she believes those casualties are the "last thing Israel wants."

"But when Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they're using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself," Warren said, drawing applause.

Let's place this in context. First, Warren has focused very little on foreign affairs in general; her primary work has been on domestic policy, particularly economics. That's why she came to public attention in the first place, it's why she got elected, and it's what she's been doing in the Senate. Secondly, you can call these comments conservative, in that they justify the Israeli government's actions without questioning the resulting civilian deaths. But the stance she articulates is essentially that of the entire American political elite, both Democratic and Republican.

(A brief interruption: as I've written many times, it's possible to criticize Hamas for their vile practice of putting rocket emplacements near things like hospitals and schools in the obvious hope that they will be bombed by Israel, civilians will die, and Palestinians will win a propaganda victory; and also acknowledge that Israel bears moral responsibility for launching those bombs, anyway, when it knows civilians will be killed. The fact that so many people find it impossible to entertain both these ideas simultaneously goes a long way toward explaining why debate around this issue is so depressing.)

That $225 million that was appropriated for Israel in the midst of the Gaza conflict was ostensibly to shore up its Iron Dome missile defense system, but more importantly, it was a symbolic statement of the U.S.'s unequivocal support for Israel at the very moment that so many were criticizing the country for the military campaign that would take more than 2,000 Palestinian lives before it came to an end. Warren was hardly the only liberal who voted for it; the measure passed unanimously in the Senate, and by a vote of 395-8 in the House.

So what should a liberal who would have liked to hear a more nuanced perspective on the Israel-Palestinian conflict from Warren think now? On one hand, there wasn't any reason to believe that Warren's economic liberalism necessarily meant she would be maximally liberal on every issue, especially in an entirely separate realm. It may be that these comments reflect her true and deep feelings about the issue, or it may be that she's just taking the low-risk path. You may not find either possibility particularly heartening.

On the other hand, we're talking about a couple of sentences here. I have a rule about "gaffes" which I think is relevant to this case, even though what Warren said isn't actually a gaffe. The rule says that we should be extremely reluctant to judge the contents of a politician's soul based on one thing she said extemporaneously one time, particularly if it's at odds with things she's said on other occasions (which doesn't really apply here, but it's still important). People make mistakes, they mangle words, they express things and then realize they should have expressed them differently or just added more to them to give their listeners a more complete understanding of what they think. Once a politician repeats something multiple times (or says it in a prepared statement they presumably had time to consider), it's much more reasonable to conclude that that's what she really believes, and judge her accordingly.

Since Warren spends most of her time in public talking about economics, we can be generous and say that we'd like to hear more about her views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before we're sure we understand the full measure of those views. Her statements about Israel so far in her career have been little more than boilerplate. (See here, for example.) It may well be that if she had the chance to talk about the subject at length, she'd offer a thoughtful, morally admirable analysis that would make liberals who are uneasy about the Israeli government's actions much happier.

For now though, and at least on this one issue, Warren doesn't seem like the brave crusader challenging the consensus of the powers that be and forcing change; she seems more like an ordinary risk-averse politician. You might want to adjust your expectations accordingly. 

Comments

To be clear, the reason we should not view this as an example of Warren being a typical politician is...

1. She doesn't know enough about Gaza or the occupation to understand the issue she was addressing, yet chose to speak about it anyway because she saw a potential benefit in echoing a pro-Israeli position;

2. She understands the situation in Gaza but she does not believe that Israel's actions were disproportionate or that the history of the conflict is relevant; or

3. She understands the occupation and holds sympathies for the Palestinians that are not reflected in her comments, but chose to make an unblinking statement in defense of Israel for political gain.

Is there another choice?

I don't have to wait for Warren to get a chance to speak out on the issue, or to add nuance to her statements. She's a U.S. Senator, and a high profile one at that. Any time she wants to make such a statement, all she has to do is speak.

Frankly, I think what Warren's statement tells us is that people are engaged in the same sort of projection about Warren that they make about other politicians they hope share their views. Obama benefited from more than that -- the perception of a great many of his supporters that when he gave an honest description of his views, he was hiding what he "really believed".

As it stands, when a politician makes a statement, even if you think the politician is misrepresenting what she believes due to politics, you have to consider that the politics aren't going to change and thus that the politician's stated position is likely to be reflected in the policies they support when elected.

Sooner or later she had to agree to the Manchurian brain implant if she wanted to expect support for any of her progressive projects, although it is sobering to hear her parrot the propaganda word for word. Too bad the messiah-questers weren't listening this closely when Obama was doing his Dr. Jekyll campaign in preparation for his Mr. Hyde governing.

Why is it that among those of us who have been critical of Israel's policies and actions against the Palestinians cannot see that Israel's recent actions against Gaza were not only justified--any government has clearly the duty to protect its citizens--but in addition, that the leadership in Gaza was behaving in a criminal way, not only against Israel, but against its own citizens. Launching rockets from densely populated areas cannot be stopped except by some actions which inevitably endanger and are very likely to kill parts of that population. The continual heart-throb claim that even children were killed is a natural consequence of the fact that half the population in Gaza is under 14 years old--a strategy of outnumbering Israel by uncontrolled population increase.

None of this is said to reduce our criticism of Israel and its Palestine policies. On the other hand, where the leadership of a part of the Palestinian population is still oriented to the elimination of Israel, that leadership has to be oppposed, especially when it acts in reckless disregard for human life, whether Israeli or Palestinian.

As long as Senator Warren says things you agree with, she's SuperSenator, but when she says something you don't like, she's "just an ordinary politician?"

Looking at the totality of her work since being elected, I think she's pretty much proven that she isn't that ordinary politician.

"Israel bears moral responsibility for launching those bombs, anyway, when it knows civilians will be killed"

And Israel accepts that responsibility. The fact is, Hamas has to be destroyed. There is no compromise or negotiation with Hamas. Hamas is all war, all the time.

In particular, the kidnapping and murder of the three teenage religious students was an act of war by Hamas. If that attack were left unpunished they would just try and try again. If you don't think the use of the Israeli army in response to this attack was justified, would you think it was justified if Hamas did this 4 or 5 times? Well, Israel isn't going to wait until more Israelis die just so some pundits can get angry enough to support Israel.

People shocked by the war in Gaza simply don't know what war is. The war in Syria next door has 100 times the number of dead as the war in Gaza. 100 times.

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