Bill Whalen: What if Boxer and Feinstein decide to pass the baton when their terms expire?

Published: Friday, Mar. 21, 2014 - 12:00 am

Say what you will about the 2014 election in California, one thing it won’t be: “The year of the woman.”

That phrase first came into political vogue in 1992 with the Senate ascents of Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, plus wins by two other Democratic hopefuls in Illinois and Washington state (at the time, the U.S. Senate had all of two female incumbents). Since then, it’s been used ad continuum – in 2010, when another wave of women entered the Senate; in 2013, contemplating the rise of women entrepreneurs; in 2014, anticipating more women writers.

But not California in this election cycle.

Boxer and Feinstein don’t face the voters until 2016 and 2018, respectively. Over on the Republican side, 2010 was the year for GOP women to roar – first-timers Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman coming up short in their quests for higher office.

But what if Boxer and Feinstein, by this time next year the chamber’s most elderly state tandem, decide to pass the baton when their terms expire?

The good news: If it’s another female senator Californians want, they can choose from more than one mold.

On the government experience side, there’s Kamala Harris, California’s state attorney and a prohibitive favorite for re-election this fall (it helps when your opponent is an Obama “birther”). And there’s Rep. Jackie Speier, a Bay Area congresswoman and former state legislator on an endless quest for equality and justice (sexual assault in the military is a signature issue).

Then again, California’s a high-end state that holds a high opinion of itself; every so often we crave star power. Two women come to mind, the first being former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, most recently seen rallying the faithful at the California Republican Party’s spring convention. The problem for GOP dreamers: While Rice’s rhetoric is upliftingly Reaganesque, her interest in running is depressingly Shermanesque.

The other buzzworthy name: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Indeed, there was buzz about her challenging Boxer in 2016 until a source close to the “Lean In” author shot down that trial balloon. Too bad: One wonders how many Facebook users would have unfollowed or unfriended her had she made the jump from women’s rights activist to maybe-not-so candidate (she should ask Whitman how pleasant it was to go from the tech world to campaign hell).

One other woman deserves mention in any conservation about a 2.0 version of female senators: Anne Gust Brown, California’s first lady. That’s because her husband gets to appoint the interim successor in the very, very off chance that either Boxer or Feinstein does not complete her term. Don’t laugh: Jerry Brown’s spouse and de facto chief of staff has the smarts to thrive in a Senate jungle that requires interpersonal and navigational skills as much as raw intelligence.

The guess here is that all of this is moot for another four years. Boxer, who’ll be 76 in 2016 when she has to decide on a fifth Senate term, doesn’t seem ready for retirement. That, and 2016 lines up well for Senate Democrats, just as this year bodes well for their Republican colleagues. If she’s in the Senate minority in 2015, it might be a quick stay.

It’s Feinstein who’s worth watching – and not for the obvious reason of age (three months shy of her 81st birthday, California’s senior senator is also the oldest member of the Senate). Rather, it’s a matter of expiration date – politicians, like dairy products, spoil after too much shelf time.

Call it the Cranston Effect: a venerable politician whose career reaches a tipping point before their final term expires.

Before Boxer took his seat in 1992, California was ably represented in the Senate by Alan Cranston. He came on the scene in 1958, winning the state controller’s job. In 1968, he advanced to the Senate.

But 24 years later, Cranston was a spoiled product. Tainted by 1989’s infamous “Keating Five” scandal, in which he was reprimanded for his ties to a failed savings-and-loan, the man seemed shopworn. Thirty-five years on the political circuit will do that to a politician. The end of his fourth term was the right time for Cranston to retire – before voters made that decision for him.

Not that Feinstein is blanketed in scandal as was Cranston, but she is dogged by a conundrum that’s not going away anytime soon: the uneasy nexus of personal privacy and government surveillance and intelligence gathering.

As the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein has long defended two administrations’ surveillance tactics. But earlier this month, she delivered a Senate floor speech blistering the CIA for interfering with her staffers’ oversight functions. The lap dog, critics said, bared its fangs.

One would think that Feinstein’s outrage – it begins with one branch of the government overstepping its bounds, but eventually will lead to waterboarding and other CIA arcana – would be a home run back in her native San Francisco. Instead, it’s the senator who’s borne the brunt of her constituents’ wrath, with locals labeling her a hypocrite for denouncing snooping only when it applies to her cozy Senate world.

Fast-forward to 2018, when Feinstein turns 85. She could do what Cranston didn’t and run for that fifth full term – Arizona’s Carl Hayden was the same age when elected to a seventh Senate term in 1962; Strom Thurmond was nearly 93 when he did it in South Carolina. Then again, she may be looking at a fifth straight year of taking her lumps over government surveillance. With the senator’s approval rating in the dumpster – the Field Poll had Feinstein at an anemic 43 percent back in December, before this latest flap – she may decide the time is right to literally ride off West and into the sunset.

Like Cranston, it’s her choice to make – before it’s made by popular choice.


Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach him at whalenoped@gmail.com.

Read more articles by Bill Whalen



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