Dianne Feinstein’s Absence Raises A Complicated Issue

Senator Dianne Feinstein

On one hand, we have a U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, whose advanced age and health have raised questions about whether she should retire. Her absence from the Senate Judiciary Committee while she recovers from shingles has stalled vital work appointing judges. Republicans have been laser-focused on appointing judges when they have the opportunity, and look no further than the current mess over the abortion pill for evidence as to why that is bad.

On the other hand, we have a president who has raised a ton of questions about whether he is capable at his advanced age to hold what is probably the toughest job in the world. However, Biden often shuts down the “sound mind” talk with a strong public performance, such as his State of the Union address this year.

There are other examples. Ted Kennedy, Karl Mundt, and Chuck Grassley are several in recent years. It might seem simple: Feinstein retires, gets the honors she deserves, and we move on to appointing judges and getting the Secretary of Labor seated.

Given this is the Glorious Glory of the Glorious American System (angelic choir), it is of course not that simple. The San Francisco Chronicle has done a nice job of outlining all of the reasons why. The politics involved in potentially replacing Feinstein, especially for Gavin Newsome, are much more complicated than what meets the eye, as New York Magazine outlined this morning. See especially Newsome’s promise to fill her seat with a Black woman if she were to retire, and the issues that would lead to given the best choice would be Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Lee is running for the seat and appointing her would give her the leg up over her opponents and be politically messy.

The attempt to appoint a current senator to temporarily fill the vacant seat, a move approved by Feinstein herself, of course failed because the GOP is not about to let that happen. They know how important these judicial nominees are, and if you have been paying even a tiny bit of attention to the last 10 years, you should know that they are much more willing to play hardball than Democrats over appointing judges.

Feinstein’s health likely would not be a big deal if she was not a deciding vote, and if the times were not what they are now. The latter is especially important because we are facing an opponent who has no qualms about playing dirty (or fascist). Claims of sexism fall a bit flat. I certainly understand them given the society we live in, but in the big picture, we need these judges in place to protect women. This defense used back in 2013 criticizing Obama’s gentle push for Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s retirement has not aged very well given Dobbs and other decisions that deeply affect all American women, not just an individual woman. Also, people like writer Molly Jong-Fast are hardly what anyone would call sexist.

Unfortunately, we are at a vital moment in our history, and there are bad actors who have realized that our system is such that things like an elderly person’s shingles and an aged person’s cancer can have profound negative effects on the rest of society. So we must be mindful of that as well. These are tough decisions, similar to whether or not it is time to take the driver’s license away from a beloved senior relative. Nothing is simple.

It is true that it is not necessarily the best thing to do to an aged relative, but it is also true that elderly drivers can cause deadly accidents. And it is also true that our society is such that many areas do not have good transportation options for elderly people and the quality of care in senior living homes is declining (yet another example of private equity firms making things worse). To run with the complication theme even further, it is also true that there are older people who are still good drivers. Decisions around beloved elders are never easy, whether a senator or grandfather.

Ideally, the best-case scenario is to have Feinstein return and serve out her term as a vote on the committee. She is not running for re-election, which in and of itself is rather admirable because if she did run for re-election, she would be yet another powerful person who let their ego and love of power get in the way of the greater good (these are politicians, remember). Here’s hoping she will recover.

I mentioned Biden in the opening, and I do think he is the best current choice for Democrats in 2024. He is not missing all that much work, he seems sharp, and I would argue that he has done a pretty damn good job. But even in this case, the reality of aging looms. People nearing 80 have a much higher chance of becoming very ill or dying than someone in their 40s. As someone nearing their 56th birthday, I am all too well aware of the time I have left. This could be a political liability but on the other hand, his most likely opponent is a man who I do not need to name who is almost as old and is gleefully and openly criminally corrupt.

What is the solution for all of this? Age limits? Term limits? These are not easy fixes either. There is also the question, rarely raised it seems, as to whether this is fair to Feinstein, to have her continue to work in her condition, similar to the questions raised about whether it was good for Bruce Willis to continue to be on set with dementia. I will note, I took care to not refer to her leaving her post as “resigning” which I hate because it implies she did something wrong, and I feel THAT is ageist. Instead, this would be a retirement from a long career in service to the American people, one that blazed plenty of trails.

The last word goes to Roy Orbison.