Dianne Feinstein’s extremely awkward, very uncomfortable exit from the political stage
LOS ANGELES — Several of her House colleagues are already running for her Senate seat. She isn’t raising real money. And it’s so widely assumed that Sen. Dianne Feinstein is on her way out that Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, felt free this week to publicly endorse a would-be successor — if Feinstein retires.
An extreme awkwardness has fallen over California political circles, where virtually everyone is acting as if Feinstein is done, but without her explicitly saying so. It’s the electoral equivalent of clearing the dessert from the dinner table as one guest sits there, nibbling at the main course chicken dish that had been served hours prior.
“God bless her,” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who has worked on major statewide campaigns in California. “But the most pathetic part of politics is when somebody doesn’t know when it’s time to leave.”
Feinstein, the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate, is in the midst of one of the most uneasy codas to a political career. Her extended pre-departure has, for many of her fellow Democrats, turned into an abject lesson in the perils of hanging on.
“She’s still the state’s senior senator,” said one longtime Democratic strategist in California. “And they’re dancing on her [political] grave.”
The oldest member of Congress at 89, Feinstein has for decades been a fixture in Democratic politics here. But as the electorate in California shifted, her brand of centrism fell out of step with her party’s progressive base — so much so that the California Democratic Party in the 2018 primary declined to endorse her reelection bid. She ran and won handily anyway.
More problematic for Feinstein has been the persistent questions about her health. Even Democrats sympathetic to the senator have been reading headlines about her cognitive fitness to serve. The stories about it pop up with such regularity now that they no longer elicit the shock value of the early versions, when publication of such matters seemed to be violating some unwritten code of D.C. conduct.
Feinstein’s office has long batted down such talk, saying she has her full faculties and remains utterly capable of executing the job of senator to the nation’s most populous state. Still, it’s a long way from the days of Harvey Milk or the “year of the woman” when she and Barbara Boxer became the first women elected to the Senate from California in 1992. Heck, it’s a long way from 2019, when Annette Bening was portraying her as an anti-torture, Bush administration-fighting crusader in the political drama “The Report.”
In California, Democrats are left looking for signs that she, too, sees that the show is coming to a close. That includes even those supporting her.
After Feinstein this week reported raising less than $600 in the last fundraising period, one of her small-dollar donors, a Carlsbad, Calif., man named William Betts, said, “I have some automatic payments in there that are still ongoing.”
“I would much prefer a younger candidate, certainly anybody from Gen X,” he said. “My preference is that she retires.”
Much of California would appear to be ready for that. In a Berkeley IGS Poll taken about a year ago, Feinstein’s job approval rating in the state hit an all-time low of 30 percent. An October measure by the Public Policy Institute of California put her approval rating higher, at 41 percent among likely voters, but still underwater.
“There hasn’t been much that’s been said in terms of her recent leadership that’s been positive,” said Mark Baldassare, director of the poll. “It really has been a while since I’ve read or heard glowing remarks about her.”
Still, he said that if he was polling on the Senate race now, he would include her.
“Until further notice,” he said, “she’s the senator.”
But almost everyone else in California, it seems — some more gently than others — is preparing for her not to be. Pelosi, before issuing her conditional endorsement of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), said that if Feinstein does seek reelection, “she has my whole-hearted support.” But no politician puts out that kind of statement if they expect her to. Schiff and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) are already running. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), has told her colleagues she plans to. Rep Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is giving consideration to the race.
The already declared candidacies, in turn, have ignited a scramble among eager Democrats downstream from them to announce campaigns for their soon-to-be-open House seats.
“It seems like all of them are handling it professionally, and honoring Dianne,” said Bob Mulholland, a veteran Democratic strategist and former Democratic National Committee member.
Even if the rush to fill a chair that Feinstein still occupies is, collectively, “pretty tasteless,” as one Democratic strategist described it, it may be hard to fault politically. The California primary will be in March of 2024 — just more than a year away — and candidates will need to raise tens of millions of dollars to compete in the state’s enormous media markets.
“What’s sad about this is that she’s always been somebody you didn’t dare mess around with,” the strategist said. “And it looks like that’s just gone.”
Already, Schiff is raising money and Porter, with her whiteboards out, is bringing in cash too. At her first campaign event, in Northern California last month, she told the crowd it’s time for “a fresh new voice” in the Senate.
For her part, Feinstein has hardly batted an eye at the spectacle surrounding her, even if the pre-announcement announcements run counter to what Boxer adviser Rose Kapolczynski called “a long tradition of deference.”
“The senator has said on a few occasions the more the merrier,” a Feinstein spokesperson said. Of Feinstein’s own timeline, she told Bloomberg News that she’ll announce plans “in the spring sometime.”
“Not in the winter,” Feinstein said. “I don’t announce in the winter.”
If she does announce her retirement, it may dramatically shift the opinion her constituents have of her. Politicians are often more popular when they go.
“There will be all the usual retrospectives about her career and her groundbreaking moments, and gun control and abortion and Harvey Milk and all of that,” Kapolczynski said. “There’ll be an afterglow. Once you announce you’re not running again, you get an afterglow from the voters.”
That will likely come no matter when Feinstein makes her announcement. And after 30 years in the Senate, some Democrats say, she has clearly earned the right to make her plans on whatever timeline she likes.
“I think she’s been a great senator, but you know … the writing’s been on the wall all for a while,” said Steve Maviglio, a former New Hampshire state lawmaker and Democratic strategist in California. “I think she wants to bow out on her terms.”
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