It turns out Democrats aren’t as forgiving of elderly politicians as we might have thought. After several months of doing their best to ignore former Vice President Joe Biden’s declining abilities and his unending string of inexplicable gaffes, Democrats have had it with one particular senior citizen: Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
In a story published by The New York Times the weekend before Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings began, various sources within the party voiced no confidence in the California senator’s ability to lead Democrats’ efforts to stop the nomination. Like a previous article published last month in Politico, the point of the effort was to highlight a belief expressed by the two liberal outlets’ sources — both on the record and anonymous — that Feinstein is simply too old and lacks the mental and physical capacity to do her job.
There was more at play here, however, than just pointing out the inherent problem of having the Senate’s oldest member being on the firing line when Democrats feel they must have their sharpest and toughest advocates front and center in an effort to discredit Barrett and President Donald Trump. Both articles were also warning shots fired in Feinstein’s direction.
Although there was no danger that Feinstein would be anything less than hostile to the conservative judge, leftist Democrats seemed to be saying that any deviation from the party line regarding their scorched-earth war against Trump and his nominee — such as Feinstein’s criticism of leftist plans to do away with the filibuster or to pack the Supreme Court — would be harshly punished when Democrats hope to control the Senate next year.
That’s why leftist groups weighed in at the conclusion of the four days of Judiciary Committee hearings to demand that she be forced to step down as ranking member. Demand Justice, an advocacy group headed by former Hillary Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon, denounced her for treating Republicans with “kid gloves.” The evidence for this accusation was the collegial hug she gave Sen. Lindsey Graham, the committee’s chairman, for the way he handled the hearings
She was performing an act of courtesy to an old colleague who had done his best to give both sides a fair shot at Barrett, even if Democrats were unhappy about the nomination. But in this era of politics being practiced as a form of a tribal culture war, nothing short of daggers-drawn advocacy can be tolerated. In the eyes of left-wingers like Fallon or a liberal group calling itself Fix Our Senate, the only explanations for friendly behavior to the other party are senility or treason.
Feinstein Isn’t Unique in Her Frailty
Although Feinstein is the oldest senator, she’s hardly the only senior citizen. She is one of eight members who are at least 80 and one of 29 who are at least 70. The Senate has a long tradition of tolerating members who were clearly in decline, with Republican Strom Thurmond lingering in the Senate until he was 100 years old and Democrat Robert Byrd dying in office at age 92, when both were long past the point of effective service.
But the idea of the Senate as the world’s most exclusive club, which always protected its members from accountability about their age or personal misconduct, with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy being the most outrageous example, seems to be one more relic of a discarded past. In an age of hyper-partisan warfare in which every senator, especially committee chairs, are expected to act as participants in an all-out culture war rather than collegial members of a deliberative body, toleration of diminished members or those who are out of touch with the spirit of the times might no longer be put up with.
The carping about Feinstein seems fundamentally unfair at a time the party’s presidential nominee has labored, sometimes with great difficulty, to withstand the rigors of the campaign. Although talk of Biden’s senility might be overstated, no one who observed closely in the past can pretend his difficulties in keeping facts straight and speaking either extemporaneously or from a teleprompter can honestly say his current performance is not diminished from what it once was.
Like Biden, Feinstein is not quite as sharp as she used to be when speaking to the public or reporters or questioning witnesses in committee hearings. During the first day of Barrett’s questioning by the Judiciary Committee, Feinstein followed the same script that other Democrats were reciting throughout the hearings, which sought to refocus the discussion from judicial issues to partisan talking points about preserving Obamacare.
At one point, she interjected a mention of Roe v. Wade in the middle of a discussion about gun control cases. Barrett responded with a quizzical look, but then the conversation got back on course with no further stumbles on Feinstein’s part. While Feinstein’s performance was far from impressive, it was no worse than that of the other two most senior members of the committee, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley or Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Democrats Pile on Feinstein
The sniping at Feinstein was both curious and ironic. Feinstein might take a dim view of the plans of radicals to blow up the system should the Democrats take complete control of the government in 2021, but there was no chance she would express sympathy or support for Barrett.
Indeed, Feinstein probably can take the most credit for Barrett’s elevation to the high court than anyone other than Trump. It was Feinstein’s unfair questioning during Barrett’s confirmation hearing for her 2017 appointment to the court of appeals that made the judge a conservative folk hero. Feinstein’s questions seemed to be saying that Barrett’s Catholic faith would render her unsuitable for high office because the church’s “dogma lives loudly within you.”
By crossing over the line with comments that seemed to be advocating an unconstitutional religious test for office, Feinstein effectively robbed Democrats of their ability to hint at prejudice against Christian conservatives while retaining plausible deniability about such prejudice.
Yet in making that point, Feinstein was speaking for many Democrats, as the effort to smear Barrett as an extremist or a religious nutcase during the last month makes plain. Moreover, it was very much in line with other grillings of Republican nominees, such as Sen. Kamala Harris’s questioning of Brian Buescher, a candidate for a federal district judgeship, about his membership in the Knights of Columbus.
While Feinstein’s comments were inappropriate, it is more than a little unfair for her party to think her comments were the result of early-onset senility rather than an expression of the views most of its members uphold. That was further illustrated by a hot mic moment on the fourth day of the hearings when, Feinstein, not realizing she was being recorded, doubled down on her attack on Barrett’s religion.
“She’s been pro-life for a long time,” Feinstein said. So I suspect with her, it’s deeply personal and comes with her religion.”
Catholics aren’t the only Americans who oppose the Democrats’ insistence on legal — and government-funded — abortions up until the moment of birth, but to Feinstein the way to make it sound deplorable is to link it to the judge’s faith.
The Politico and Times articles also seemed to blame Feinstein for the belated revelations of unsubstantiated accusations of sexual misconduct against Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. As unfair and inappropriate as Feinstein’s actions were, however, they were not due to her age or infirmity but were part of a calculated Democratic attempt to derail the Kavanaugh nomination.
The Senior Senator Just Isn’t Radical Enough
Leftist Democrats’ real beef with Feinstein isn’t her attitude toward Barrett, it’s the independent streak that has always characterized her Senate career.
Feinstein’s opposition to ending the filibuster is a genuine threat to her party’s hopes to ram through a host of radical measures next year if they get a Senate majority and win the White House. If enough moderate Democrats go along with her, that would stop their leader Sen. Chuck Schumer from taking the next step toward abolishing a measure that would otherwise prevent them from packing the Supreme Court with leftist justices and admitting the District of Columbia and even Puerto Rico as states, which would enable them to ensure their domination over the government for the foreseeable future.
Nor has anyone on the left forgotten her viral moment with a group of schoolchildren who arrived at Feinstein’s office to lecture her about supporting the Green New Deal. The crotchety senator had no patience for listening to ultimatums from middle-schoolers and instead lectured them about politics being the art of the possible rather than “my way or the highway.” That, as much as anything, demonstrates just what Feinstein thinks about the younger generation of Democrats.
Thus, the whispering campaign against the senator, amplified by articles in leftist publications, isn’t so much about her being more impaired than other Democrats, let alone their presidential nominee, but about their reliability in sticking to whatever the party line of the moment might be.
It is Feinstein’s potential for heresy against the new liberal orthodoxy that is causing some in her party to threaten to take away her status as a ranking member or to serve as a chair if the Democrats are in the majority in January, not her age. After all, if Biden wins in November, Democrats are counting on a president they can control and are wanting a senator they can crush.