Dianne Feinstein was born less than three months after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office for the first time, in 1933. Today, she announced she will be seeking another term in the Senate, even though she is already the oldest sitting senator. If re-elected, she will be 85 years old when she starts her next 6-year term of office.
This is, admittedly, a very ageist way of looking at things. Chalk it up to frustration, from a Californian voter who was truly hoping she would instead have announced her impending retirement. I can be a lot more unbiased when writing about the other 49 states, because their senators are not supposed to be directly representing me personally, in other words. Although Feinstein regularly cruises to re-election, she has not earned my vote since the early 2000s, when she showed her true hawkish colors on both foreign wars and on our own government’s surveillance of American citizens’ communications. I don’t vote for Feinstein because I do not feel she represents my views on such subjects. Since I’m admitting my voting record here, during the same period I enthusiastically voted to re-elect Barbara Boxer each and every time she ran, because I felt she did represent my views ― certainly a lot better than Feinstein ever did.
So perhaps I’m just using age as an excuse when I express my disappointment that Feinstein is going to make another run for office. Then again, perhaps not. One aspect of a long tenure in Congress is that the voters get to see a long record of votes and political stances. Dianne Feinstein’s overall record is decidedly mixed, but it puts her a lot closer to “a Joe Lieberman-style Democrat” than “a staunch progressive.” I wouldn’t go so far as to call her an across-the-board “Democrat In Name Only” (DINO), but she surely does deserve the designation on certain issues.
To be fair, Feinstein has been a strong voice on a few key progressive issues. She is once again proving herself to be the pre-eminent Democratic voice on gun control (more on that in a bit). She strongly supports women’s rights, and gay rights. But her most impressive stand to date (to me, at least) was how strongly she stood up to the Bush administration on the subject of torture. She fought back against George W. Bush (and John Yoo) and their loose interpretation of U.S. laws banning torture. She was principally responsible for a Senate investigation into the matter, and she pushed very hard to make public a (redacted, but 600 pages long) report on the conclusions of this investigation. For doing so, she is to be lauded.
However, her commitment to constitutional norms and doing the right thing has never carried over to the subject of the government spying on its own citizens. Feinstein was a staunch supporter of Bush’s National Security Administration, and all the data they were collecting without the benefit of a warrant. She even pushed a measure to retroactively legalize any N.S.A. spying done in the past, when it became an issue. She’s also been a big supporter of the USA PATRIOT Act. She denounced Edward Snowden’s leaking, but thought that David Petraeus didn’t deserve prosecution for leaking, saying “the man has suffered enough.” She was one of the few Democrats who voted to confirm Michael Mukasey as Bush’s attorney general. In general, she was a very weak Democratic vote throughout the Bush term, often crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans (even on poison-pill bills which would have weakened E.P.A. protections). Feinstein is also (now that Joe Lieberman is gone) one of the most hawkish Democrats in Congress, from her vote on the Iraq War right up to the present day.
Feinstein is no progressive when it comes to economics, as she proved when she voted in favor of Bush’s tax cuts for millionaires. She benefited directly from this tax break, as she is one of the wealthiest members of Congress. She also recently consoled Democrats to have “some patience” with Donald Trump’s administration, rather than outright resisting him.
All of that aside, I still personally have a single issue which would override pretty much every other vote and position she’s taken. Dianne Feinstein has been strongly against marijuana legalization, and she co-chaired the “No” committees on both Proposition 19 (which failed, in 2010) and Proposition 64 (which passed, in 2016). Feinstein is old enough to remember when Democrats were politically hammered for being “soft on crime” ― especially on the Drug War ― back in the “Just Say No” 1980s. She’s never changed her tune on this issue, even when her constituents obviously disagree with her outdated position.
Even though she won’t have my vote, Dianne Feinstein will quite likely cruise to re-election. California is a very blue state, and we’ve now got very odd primary election rules which may result in Feinstein appearing on the general election ballot with only another Democrat’s name to choose from (and no candidate from any other party). Since she’s announced she’s running again, this will most likely clear the field of other prominent California Democrats (who had all been eyeing a run, if Feinstein had announced her retirement).
This will lead to either one of two realistically-possible outcomes. First, Feinstein will most likely draw a prominent (and moderate) Republican challenger, and a lot of no-name Democratic challengers in the primaries. Because it is a “jungle primary,” all these names will appear on the same ballot. If the Republican is strong enough, he or she may wind up being Feinstein’s only challenger in the general.
The other possible outcome is an up-and-coming Democratic challenger does better than expected and wins second place in the primary. This would lead to two Democrats on the general election ballot, meaning disaffected Republicans would have the choice of either not voting for anyone or casting an anti-Feinstein vote for the Democratic challenger.
Either way it shakes out, Feinstein has to be seen as the heavy favorite to win the general and return to the Senate. Her candidacy may have gotten a boost with the recent tragedy in Las Vegas, in fact, since as mentioned she will be leading the effort to tighten regulations on “bump stocks.” If she is even partially successful in this effort, she will be prominent in the national news over the next few months. That’s a lot of free television time, in other words, right before she starts her re-election campaign.
While Feinstein is running for another term which would continue until after her 91st birthday, age shouldn’t really be the key factor. For many progressives, it might be an easy excuse to oppose Feinstein, but if you asked them whether they’d vote for another Bernie Sanders term when he was 85, they’d most likely answer: “Sure!” Feinstein isn’t doddering or anything ― she still seems pretty sharp in Senate hearings and interviews ― so nobody has yet accused her of not being up to the job mentally.
Instead, it is what her age represents (in a far less personal and more generic way) within the Democratic Party right now. None of the Democratic leadership could exactly be described as spring chickens, and younger voters are feeling more than a little frustrated at the refusal to pass the torch to a younger generation, in order to build up the Democratic bench. However, this is before the 2020 presidential season begins, which may see a lot of younger Democratic politicians get a lot more national exposure. For a prime example, we need look no further than California’s other senator, Kamala Harris. Harris has only been on the job for a year now, and yet she has risen to prominence within the party. She won her seat after Barbara Boxer stepped down, and she’s already being talked about as a possible 2020 presidential candidate. So California already does have at least one impressive young face on the Democratic political scene.
Dianne Feinstein could have facilitated another more-youthful Democrat on the national scene, if she had today announced her retirement. She may yet do so, if a previously-unknown Democrat has a strong showing against her in the primary or the general election (which, even if they lose, will wind up gaining them a lot of statewide attention). Feinstein could certainly use an honest challenger from her left, because she is very vulnerable in this regard. Her voting record is strong on certain issues, but on others she’s voted more regularly with Republicans than with Democrats. She should indeed be challenged on this.
But by announcing she’s running again, she will quite likely clear the field of any strong Democrat who could replace her in the Senate. Ambitious Democrats will likely run for the California governor’s office instead, next year. Dianne Feinstein will quite likely serve in the Senate until her death, following in the footsteps of other octogenarians (and nonagenarians, even) who have also refused to leave. Incumbent senators only very rarely get defeated, meaning it is almost a guaranteed lifetime position. Which means California will, for the foreseeable future, continue to have a senior senator who grew up under F.D.R.’s presidency. Perhaps, at the very least, a genuine progressive challenger might influence Feinstein’s own positions during the campaign, but that’s about the best I can hope for, at this point.
Chris Weigant blogs at ChrisWeigant.com
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