Gov. Gavin Newsom already faces the complicated chore of filling several high-profile political positions.
He’ll have a U.S. Senate seat to fill after Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president.
He’ll also name a new state attorney general if Xavier Becerra wins Senate confirmation as President-elect Joe Biden’s health and human services secretary.
Thirdly, if he elevates California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to the Senate as Harris’ successor, as widely expected, he’ll appoint someone to fill out Padilla’s term.
Newsom has publicly commiserated with himself about dealing with all of the ambitious politicians seeking promotions into high office.
And then, last week, New Yorker magazine published a lengthy article describing Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s “cognitive decline” and waning political clout, which raises the possibility that she will not finish out the remaining four years of her current term and give Newsom another big office to fill.
Feinstein, first elected to the Senate in 1992, clearly was averse to running for a fifth full term in 2018. However, she was urged to do so by Democratic Party leaders, worried that were Feinstein to retire, it would touch off a fierce and expensive scramble among Democrats that would divert resources they wanted for Senate races in other states.
Anger From the Left Boiled up Again When Feinstein Failed
Feinstein reluctantly ran, which angered Democratic activists who had long criticized her centrist, collegial approach. Kevin de León, a former president pro tem of the state Senate, challenged her and won the state Democratic Party’s official endorsement, but lost to Feinstein in a runoff.
Anger from the left boiled up again when Feinstein failed, in her critics’ eyes, to vigorously oppose Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court during Judiciary Committee hearings. Most galling to those on the left is that she hugged and publicly praised the Republican Judiciary chairman, Lindsey Graham, afterwards.
The outcry was so severe that Feinstein gave up her seat on Judiciary, one of the Senate’s most powerful positions.
The New Yorker article advanced the narrative of Feinstein’s fading political potency.
It cited one public indication of “cognitive decline” in the 87-year-old senator: a hearing in November when she asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey a question and then moments later asked exactly the same question.
Other examples in the article were what journalists call “blind quotes” from those who didn’t want to reveal their identities. The New Yorker quoted those saying Feinstein was still sharper than other aged senators.
Newsom’s Management of the Game of Musical Offices
“But many others familiar with Feinstein’s situation,” it said, “describe her as seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years. Speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career, they say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have. They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset when she can’t keep up.”
New Yorker reported that Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, assigned someone to keep an eye on Feinstein during the Barrett hearings. Afterwards, he publicly but softly criticized her, and had several private meetings, culminating in her exit from the Judiciary Committee.
If, indeed, Feinstein is failing as much as the New Yorker article portrays, it’s difficult to see her hanging on until her term is up in 2024. The potential of a resignation plays into Newsom’s management of the game of musical offices. Someone passed over this year might be considered for Feinstein’s seat and Newsom might even place himself on that contingency list.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.