Things were slightly bittersweet at Dianne Feinstein’s election night celebration in San Francisco, which marked her easy reelection to a fifth full term in the U.S. Senate, where she has been arguably the most influential Democratic member for the last few years.
Her power was most publicly obvious this fall during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, when she led off questioning as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Shortly after, she threw the proceedings into chaos when she revealed accusations of highly questionable sexual behavior by President Trump’s nominee.
So there are few doubts about Feinstein’s effectiveness at age 85, the oldest current senator. But all fall, as her aggressive reelection opponent Kevin de Leon hammered at her cautious and always civil approach, one question loomed over her campaign: Would Feinstein serve out her full new term?
For sure, if Republican John Cox had pulled off a massive upset and won the governor’s office, that question would have been answered in the negative. With the conservative Cox in charge at California’s Capitol and ready to appoint a GOP replacement if Feinstein’s seat ever became vacant, there’s no way she ever would leave her office so long as she has breath.
But the creatively liberal Democrat Gavin Newsom will now hold that office, so Feinstein’s retirement option remains open. For Newsom, like Feinstein a former San Francisco mayor, could be counted on to name a replacement who would vote pretty much as Feinstein does: backing abortion rights, gun controls and free trade policies.
Potential appointees might include outgoing state Treasurer John Chiang and Pasadena-area Congressman Adam Schiff, to name just two. The Democratic bench is deep, but de Leon’s often aggressive attacks on Feinstein may have eliminated him from future consideration.
Of course, Feinstein never commented during the campaign on the possibility of retiring before her term is up. In fact, she did little in-person campaigning around California, in part because the Kavanaugh hearings kept her anchored to hearing rooms and her office through most of the election season.
But her top campaign aide, longtime consultant Bill Carrick, made it clear she was not contemplating that. “The thought of retirement never crosses her mind,” Carrick said.
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And yet… There are all those red-eye flights to Washington, D.C., which every West Coast senator must make, arriving exhausted in the early morning and still having to do a full day’s business. There’s the somewhat dicey health situation of her husband, financier Richard Blum, whose lung cancer treatments in 2016 caused her to miss the Democratic National Convention.
So there may be reasons for her to want to retire. But there is also incentive for Feinstein to serve out her term. For one thing, she was obviously frustrated the last few years as Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa chaired the Judiciary Committee, presiding over Supreme Court confirmation hearings that Feinstein would have guided if there had been just two more Democratic senators.
With Democrats looking like a strong possibility to take control of the Senate in two years, Feinstein could look forward to most likely being in charge soon.
There’s also the Intelligence Committee, which deals with America’s most sensitive national security issues. Feinstein would be its senior member with Democrats in charge.
But the question of age remains. For many persons who reach advanced years, 90 can be a benchmark time when they grow more fragile and less energetic. Feinstein has never shown signs of fading strength or endurance, but all it takes is one or two transient ischemic attacks (small strokes) to change anyone’s health self-evaluation.
Feinstein has shown no signs of ever experiencing anything like that, and plainly feels she still has important work to do. Her major cause of protecting the California deserts from development is threatened by Trump administration policies. So are abortion rights and gun controls, which have been vital to her since she witnessed the 1978 assassinations of former San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.
The upshot is that Feinstein won’t leave of her own accord unless she feels she’s losing some of her abilities. That plainly is nowhere near reality today, but how might she feel in two or four years?