Yikes. Either Dianne Feinstein alienated progressive staff on Capitol Hill more than we realized with her hug of Lindsey Graham, or Gavin Newsom might need to make two Senate appointments this year. In a stinging report, New Yorker’s Jane Mayer hints that Feinstein has begun struggling with dementia, although that word never gets uttered.
Instead, as one “well informed Senate source” told Mayer, it’s been like taking the keys to the car away from Grandma. Or like Groundhog Day, but not in any comedic sense:
But many others familiar with Feinstein’s situation describe her as seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years. Speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career, they say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have. They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset when she can’t keep up. One aide to another senator described what he called a “Kabuki” meeting in which Feinstein’s staff tried to steer her through a proposed piece of legislation that she protested was “just words” which “make no sense.” Feinstein’s staff has said that sometimes she seems herself, and other times unreachable. “The staff is in such a bad position,” a former Senate aide who still has business in Congress said. “They have to defend her and make her seem normal.”
Feinstein has always been known as a difficult taskmaster. She is said to have told someone applying for a job in her office, “I don’t get ulcers—I give them.” A stickler for detail, she demanded to see every page going out of her office with her name on it. But with her diminishing capacity, this has become increasingly difficult. The former Senate staffer who still works with Congress declared, “It’s been a disaster.” As the ranking Democrat, Feinstein ordinarily would be expected to run the Party’s strategy on issues of major national importance, including judicial nominations. Instead, the committee has been hamstrung and disorganized. “Other members were constantly trying to go around her because, as chair, she didn’t want to do anything, and she also didn’t want them doing anything,” the former Senate staffer said. A current aide to a different Democratic senator observed sadly, “She’s an incredibly effective human being, but there’s definitely been deterioration in the last year. She’s in a very different mode now.”
According to Mayer’s sources, Chuck Schumer is well aware of the problem. He tried to “embed” one of his staff in the Senate Judiciary confirmation process for now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett, but Feinstein’s leadership reportedly derailed Democrats’ strategy — at least in the narrative supplied by Mayer’s sources. That seems like an awful lot to pin on Feinstein alone; none of the Democrats on the panel did an effective job against Barrett, and Feinstein was far from the worst. (That honor goes to Maizie Hirono, with perhaps Sheldon Whitehouse as runner-up.) In a real sense, Schumer’s more to blame for Barrett’s confirmation than anyone else still in his caucus for his part in the 2013 “nuclear option” that set the precedent Mitch McConnell used to get three Supreme Court nominees confirmed by simple majorities.
However, if the following is true, it’s a real problem for Schumer — and a bit heartbreaking no matter which side of the aisle one stands:
Schumer had several serious and painful talks with Feinstein, according to well-informed sources. Overtures were also made to enlist the help of Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum. Feinstein, meanwhile, was surprised and upset by Schumer’s message. He had wanted her to step aside on her own terms, with her dignity intact, but “she wasn’t really all that aware of the extent to which she’d been compromised,” one well-informed Senate source told me. “It was hurtful and distressing to have it pointed out.” Compounding the problem, Feinstein seemed to forget about the conversations soon after they talked, so Schumer had to confront her again. “It was like Groundhog Day, but with the pain fresh each time.” Anyone who has tried to take the car keys away from an elderly relative knows how hard it can be, he said, adding that, in this case, “It wasn’t just about a car. It was about the U.S. Senate.”
Yikes, indeed. That might explain why Lindsey Graham was so deferential to Feinstein when her allies started tearing her to pieces after the hug. If Feinstein is that bad off (or even close), Graham might have felt the need to shield her from attacks from which she might not have been able to defend herself.
Or — alternately — this might be a cruel whisper campaign to force Feinstein out of her seat, and that prompted Graham’s defense. No one’s going on the record to make these claims, and it comes at a very odd time. If this was a real issue, why not deal with it before the Barrett hearing, especially since Mayer’s sources say it’s been getting bad for a year? This has the hallmark of a smear job intending to bully someone into a retreat. Progressives want a scalp over their losses on Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, and Schumer’s not going to surrender his. Both scenarios have their cruelty, and the worst might be if both are simultaneously true.
Assuming that Mayer’s sources are on the level … what now? Feinstein has her seat until 2024, when she will be 91 years old. Either Senate Democrats would have to convince her to resign or start some sort of proceedings to remove her. However, as Mayer points out, the Senate is now at its aggregate oldest, which means there won’t be many who want to set that kind of precedent. Plus, speaking of precedent, Mayer points out that Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond rather famously outlived their own mental acuities while in the Senate without much angst, as long as they could cast votes for their parties. In a more evenly divided Senate with minority rights eroded, though, the problems become more acute. Senate Democrats might just need to carry Feinstein for another four years and hope she fades into the background.