Bill Whalen

Kamala Harris, flash and style, can’t measure up to Dianne Feinstein

Sen. Kamala Harris, center, talks to reporters after the 21st Lake Tahoe Summit on Aug. 22. Bill Whalen says on substance, she can’t hold a candle to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, right.
Sen. Kamala Harris, center, talks to reporters after the 21st Lake Tahoe Summit on Aug. 22. Bill Whalen says on substance, she can’t hold a candle to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, right. Associated Press

Samuel Beckett waited in vain for Godot. Californians await a decision from Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Will she seek re-election next November, or is this her final act?


Those at a San Francisco fundraiser last week say Feinstein sounded every bit the candidate. I have friends back in Washington who insist she’s not.

I won’t try to guess Feinstein’s move. But I hope she’ll consider what’s best for her and for California – and seek another six-year term until, maybe, someone with her gravitas comes along.

Absent Feinstein, Golden State seniority in the U.S. Senate falls to Kamala Harris, in her first year in Washington. What an unsettling thought.

Harris is already a hot topic of presidential speculation. One newspaper calls her the “Great Freshman Hope.” She’s partisan to the max, voting against 18 of President Donald Trump’s top nominees (only five other senators have done the same).

Harris has taken stands on serious policy. This week, she signed on to the “Medicare for all” proposal from Sen. Bernie Sanders. Yet at times, the junior senator seemingly left her heart and her intellect in San Francisco. For example, this tweet: “Joe Arpaio was convicted because he committed a crime. He should not be pardoned.” The freshman needs a refresher on the powers of the executive.

Feinstein, on the other hand, is front and center on North Korean missiles, Iranian nuclear technology, national monuments, breaking up the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and immigration reform.

As for Harris, an August Cosmopolitan magazine column talks about her in the context of “the emotional and political labor that black women are expected to do to save America’s soul.” (Harris has an African-American and Asian-Indian background). A June write-up in Elle gushed over Harris’ hair-flips and smirks during a confirmation hearing. Vogue took note of Harris frequenting a trendy West Hollywood hair salon – “a paean to left coast, eco-chic living.”

While Feinstein toils away on such grunt work as federal crop insurance, Harris has pursued a different type of crop: money. Last month, she was in the Hamptons getting to know Hillary Clinton donors.

To be fair, it’s not Harris’ fault that she’s the subject of vapid reporting. As with Barack Obama, good looks and multiracial appeal is catnip for some scribes.

But Harris needs to be thinking big picture – not her own prospects in 2020, but California’s in 2019. The biggest blue state, home to a political “resistance” to Trump’s every urge, is in a better position to negotiate in Washington, D.C., if Democrats retake at least one chamber of Congress next year. It won’t be the Senate, but it might be the U.S. House. Nancy Pelosi, returning as speaker, would wield new West Coast clout.

But if that scenario doesn’t play out, just how out of place is a nation-state with two Democratic senators and perhaps only one-fifth of its 53 House members consisting of Republicans? Harris needs to figure how to navigate that landscape more than cocktail parties in the Hamptons.

There is one way to get around the gravitas matter should Feinstein, who turns 85 next year, call it a day. Give the seat to the one California officeholder arguably as learned as she is: Gov. Jerry Brown. Having lost a Senate race in 1982 to Pete Wilson, it’s one unfilled space in Brown’s political résumé.

Brown could make a Senate run out of sheer vanity, or because his faith dictates. Best of all, I can’t remember the last time anyone wrote about who does his hair.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at