One thing for sure: If Gov. Gavin Newsom had lost the recall election, if replacement candidate Larry Elder now awaited taking over the state’s top political job shortly, there would be no doubt about what Democratic US Sen. Dianne Feinstein must do: resign.
With the ultra-conservative, Donald Trump-loving Elder in the wings and Feinstein’s age (88) making health problems or disability possible anytime, the pressure on the 29-year incumbent senator would be enormous to step down while Newsom could still appoint her successor.
But Newsom survived, and handily, so the pressure on Feinstein eased. But it’s not gone and Newsom is up for reelection next year, figuring to face some of the same Republican rivals who tried to topple him this summer, plus the possibility of a challenge from some significant fellow Democrat.
Feinstein over the last year has also heard from others a lot of the same “too old” talk spewed by fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon, her reelection rival in 2018.
Back then, the shrill Los Angeles councilman de Leon, a former state Senate president, realized he might never again have a statewide voice like he did at that moment and that 2018 might be his only shot at the US Senate seat he eagerly covets.
So the entire thrust of his campaign was “It doesn’t matter what Feinstein does. The mere fact she’s 85 is enough reason to dump her.”
That’s an argument never made against more aged male senators like J. Strom Thurmond or Daniel Inouye, while Feinstein has lately been reviled by her party’s far left.
They see as a negative her tendency to make things collegial rather than continually contentious.
They see her getting along with Republicans like Iowa’s Chuck Grassley and South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham as an extreme negative even though those connections helped her shepherd into law liberal items like desert protection and coastal oil drilling moratoria.
But now Feinstein’s performance — beyond the press releases her office pumps out far more regularly than those coming from her far younger new colleague Alex Padilla – is often perceived as lacking.
Feinstein hasn’t been seen in public much lately, goes one complaint, so how can anyone know if she’s physically OK or mentally competent?
She’s become even more friendly with Republicans, goes another gripe, even hugging Graham last fall and complimenting him on his conduct of hearings that confirmed the newest Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee.
These complaints led Feinstein to allow Illinois’ Dick Durbin to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee where Supreme Court confirmations are staged, rather than taking the job that could have been hers.
Even Feinstein’s longtime Senate colleague, the retired Democrat Barbara Boxer, allowed the other day that retirement might be a good idea for Feinstein.
“If Senator Feinstein were to call me today and ask my advice,” Boxer told a reporter, “I would say only you can decide this. But from my perspective, I want you to know I’ve had very productive years away from the Senate doing good things. So put that into the equation.”
This wasn’t exactly a demand for instant retirement as it might have been had Newsom been fired by the voters and Feinstein’s presence therefore made Democrats fear their razor thin Senate control was seriously threatened.
By comparison, those same Democrats are far louder in their demands that 82-year-old liberal Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer step down and allow President Biden to appoint his replacement while Democrats can still assure a Biden nominee of at least getting a hearing — something Republicans denied to Barack Obama appointee Merrick Garland the last time a Democrat was president and Republicans controlled the Senate.
Regardless, a Feinstein retirement would likely give California somewhat more energetic representation than it now has in the Senate, where her critics correctly observe she hasn’t been seen in many committee hearings lately.
But Boxer ably summed up the way things stand now: With no immediate threat of a Republican replacement if something happens to her, this choice will be Feinstein’s alone. If she opts to depart soon, 2022 could become California’s most active political year ever, with elections for governor and two slots in the Senate.