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. 

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