Democrats struggle with an open secret: The serious mental decline of an aging politician

The NY Times published a story today about Democrats coming to terms with the fact that an aging Democrat may no longer be fit for office. It’s a story about Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Who did you think we were talking about?

At 88, Ms. Feinstein sometimes struggles to recall the names of colleagues, frequently has little recollection of meetings or telephone conversations, and at times walks around in a state of befuddlement — including about why she is increasingly dogged by questions about whether she is fit to serve in the Senate representing the 40 million residents of California, according to half a dozen lawmakers and aides who spoke about the situation on the condition of anonymity.

On Capitol Hill, it is widely — though always privately — acknowledged that Ms. Feinstein suffers from acute short-term memory issues that on some days are ignorable, but on others raise concern among those who interact with her…

One Democratic lawmaker who had an extended encounter with Ms. Feinstein in February said in an interview that the experience was akin to acting as a caregiver for a person in need of constant assistance. The lawmaker recalled having to reintroduce themself to the senator multiple times, helping her locate her purse repeatedly and answering the same set of basic, small-talk questions over and over again.

Some people close to Feinstein have said they don’t see how she could possible finish out her current term which doesn’t expire until 2024, but Feinstein is still saying she has no plans to retire. Last month there was a similar piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle which Ed wrote about here. Here’s a quote from that piece:

“I have worked with her for a long time and long enough to know what she was like just a few years ago: always in command, always in charge, on top of the details, basically couldn’t resist a conversation where she was driving some bill or some idea. All of that is gone,” the lawmaker said. “She was an intellectual and political force not that long ago, and that’s why my encounter with her was so jarring. Because there was just no trace of that.”

But despite all of this, the Democratic leadership refuses to discuss the subject of her fitness for office.

Pressed last week about Ms. Feinstein’s ability to serve, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, neither defended her nor tried to dismiss the issue.

“I’ve had a good number of discussions with Senator Feinstein,” he told reporters, “but I’m keeping them to myself.”…

Some lawmakers have privately raised red flags about Ms. Feinstein to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in a statement said it was “unconscionable” that the senator was “being subjected to these ridiculous attacks that are beneath the dignity in which she has led and the esteem in which she is held.”

White House spokesman Jen Psaki was also asked about Feinstein’s fitness for office in the wake of the Chronicle story and expressed President Biden’s confidence in her.

All of which brings me to the point I’ve been telegraphing all along. If Dianne Feinstein is struggling to remember things to the point that she needs a caregiver and still the White House and leading congressional Democrats won’t acknowledge it, that doesn’t give me much confidence in their willingness to deal honestly with the issue. And Feinstein isn’t a terribly powerful figure in the party at this point. If the leadership can’t be honest about her decline, there’s zero chance they’ll be honest about what is happening with Joe Biden. I’m talking of course about the senior moment Biden had last week when he seemed to really struggle to find a couple of words that ultimately eluded him.

It’s the most recent and arguably the worst instance of this sort of thing but it’s far from the first one. Some of these are just awkward.

Others have been a bit more consequential:

And yet, there’s no one on the left willing to acknowledge there might be a problem. Biden has always been a gaffe machine but the frequency of the gaffes seems to be increasing lately. I’m not suggesting that Biden is anywhere close to where Feinstein reportedly is now. He doesn’t appear unable to function but he does appear to be slipping even compared to where he was a couple years ago. It makes you wonder where he’ll be a year from now or two years from now and whether anyone in his party will eventually be willing to acknowledge there might be a problem.