Whither Dianne Feinstein?
California’s senior U.S. senator is once again in the center of a media maelstrom — or feeding frenzy — over whether she’ll serve out the remaining four years of her current term.
Feinstein, at 87 the oldest senator, easily staved off a much-younger and more liberal challenger, Kevin de León, in 2018. However, her standing in the party eroded as it moved leftward while she remained a pragmatic moderate.
Under Fire After Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing
Last year, the left hammered her for being too passive during fierce Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. Feinstein later gave up her Judiciary Committee position — voluntarily, she said.
Feinstein also contended with a New Yorker magazine article claiming she was suffering from “cognitive decline.”
The New Yorker acknowledged that Feinstein was still sharper than other aged senators. “But many others familiar with Feinstein’s situation describe her as seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years,” the article said. “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.”
Newsom Comment Fed the Flames
The new year has brought new flareups of speculation that Feinstein might give up her seat and thus allow Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill one of the nation’s most influential political offices.
Newsom fed the flames when, in response to an interviewer’s question, he pledged to name a Black woman to the Senate should Feinstein resign. Politically, it was clearly an effort by Newsom to shore up support as he faces a recall election because he had been criticized for not naming a Black woman to the Senate after Kamala Harris became vice president.
However, to some, Newsom was joining the chorus of those seeking Feinstein’s early retirement.
Christine Pelosi, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s daughter and chair of the state Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus, snapped: “I would hope that (the Newsom campaign) remember(s) there are a lot of women who vote in the recall, and it’s not a very good look to pit women together to save the job of a man. … If you don’t respect us, don’t expect us.”
Gil Duran, the Sacramento Bee’s editorial page editor and Newsom’s sharpest media critic, opined that “Gavin Newsom just threw Dianne Feinstein under the bus to save his own skin.”
Newsom quickly insisted that he had not meant to undermine Feinstein, saying she “should absolutely fill out the rest of her term” and referring to her as a friend and a mentor.
Feinstein Insists She’ll Finish Term
Just as the air cleared from that incident, the New York Times reignited speculation by reporting that Richard Blum, Feinstein’s husband, was seeking an ambassadorship from President Joe Biden. Accompanying Blum to a distant capital would be a dignified way of exiting from the Senate, some suggested.
However, Feinstein insists that she’ll remain in the Senate through her current term and has even hinted at running again in 2024. She told reporters last week that her husband “is interested” in a diplomatic post but answered “no, no, no” to questions about leaving the Senate if he gets it.
Is that the end of the story? Probably not.
Polls indicate that Feinstein’s popularity has waned, the Democratic left and would-be successors want her gone, and her position on maintaining the Senate’s filibuster rule will likely be the next flareup.
Feinstein has a target pinned to her back.
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.