Bill Whalen

Why Feinstein might not want six more years in the Senate

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein called Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch “impressive” and “a very caring person and obviously legally very smart,” but that didn’t dissuade her and fellow Democrats from their filibuster.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein called Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch “impressive” and “a very caring person and obviously legally very smart,” but that didn’t dissuade her and fellow Democrats from their filibuster. The Associated Press

Befitting a political career that’s spanned almost five decades, let’s look at Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s prospects through the prisms of two television commercials that aired back when California’s senior senator was cutting her teeth on San Francisco city politics.

“Does She Or Doesn’t She?” Unlike hair-color products, there’s no tinting political ambition. Will Feinstein run for another term in 2018 knowing that a bevy of ambitious Democrats are waiting (patiently, for now) in the wings?

“You’ve Come A Long Way Baby.” Hard to believe this was an ad campaign designed to sell cigarettes to liberated women – just as it’s hard to believe that we’re 25 years beyond 1992 and the fabled “year of the woman” that brought Feinstein to the Senate (along with three other female senators and a record 47 women in the House of Representatives).

I won’t begin to guess Feinstein’s thinking, but let’s acknowledge that the seat is hers until 2024, if she likes. What’s the likelihood of one or more Democrats or Republicans defeating her in a statewide race? Think of it as the Chicago Cubs meet Sergio Garcia, with Warren Beatty reading the voting returns.

A better question: Why does Feinstein want a six-year contract extension?

The chances are slim that the Democrats will win back the Senate next year (they have 23 seats to defend to the Republicans’ nine). It might take them as long as the 2022 election to win back the chamber. Does Feinstein want to wait that long given that the forecast in Washington is years of partisanship warfare, with the occasional nuclear option?

Besides, by 2022 Feinstein will be celebrating her 89th birthday.

Utter “ageist” if you like, though I’m not suggesting that Feinstein is too old to hold the job. But while you’re at it, name the number of women age 80 and beyond who’ve held a major political office. Golda Meir? She turned 76 in her final year as Israel’s prime minister. Angela Merkel, currently in her 12th year as German chancellor? She’ll be 63 this summer.

OK, there is Queen Elizabeth, who turns 91 next week. But Great Britain’s monarch was to-the-manor-born – i.e., the mindset in Kamala Harris’ world.

The Feinstein age question is legitimate. But it’s not the number on her birth certificate. Rather, it’s the change in politics during her quarter of a century on a job.

The Dianne Feinstein who took office in the early 1990s was the ideal centrist – a pragmatic foil to Barbara Boxer’s progressive ardor. Think back to the Headwaters Forest deal of two decades ago. Thousands of acres of ancient redwoods remain today thanks to Feinstein’s ability to work with a Democratic president in Washington, a Republican governor in Sacramento and a timber company ready to fire up its Black & Deckers.

But those days of bipartisanship are long gone. Then again, maybe so too is that Senator Feinstein.

The same Dianne Feinstein who called Neil Gorsuch “impressive” and “a very caring person and obviously legally very smart” when he stopped by her office voted against President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee (she cited some persiflage about answers “diluted without ambiguity”). The Senate’s voice of reason didn’t stop her fellow Democrats from their foolhardy filibuster.

Then again, Feinstein was one of 22 Democratic senators to vote against John Roberts, another qualified jurist, when he was up for chief justice back in 2005 (22 Democrats voted in favor of Roberts). Four months later, Feinstein was one of 24 Democrats who voted to filibuster Samuel Alito’s nomination – Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden joined her on that failed stunt (19 Democrats broke ranks and voted with 53 Republicans to stifle that delay tactic).

Perhaps that’s as good of a reason as any for Feinstein to bid goodbye to the Senate next year.

It’s not because she’ll turn 85.

It’s because the great Senate tradition of comity and common sense has been eighty-sixed – and she played a role in it.

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

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