Democrats and the Dianne Feinstein question

When California Sen. Dianne Feinstein ran for — and won — a fifth Senate term at age 85 in 2018, few establishment Democrats said a word publicly.

After all, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) had served until he was 100. And West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D) died in office at age 92.
Democrats, however, may be ruing that decision these days, as two stories have come out in recent months that suggest that Feinstein, who is now 87, is in clear cognitive decline.
On Thursday, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer published a piece offering a series of details — and quotes from former Feinstein aides — that paint a troubling picture of the California Democrat’s ability to do the job.
    This paragraph, attributed to sources “familiar with Feinstein’s situation,” stood out:
    “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.”

    The New Yorker story comes after Politico’s John Bresnahan and Marianne Levine broke the story of the growing concerns among Democrats about Feinstein — and specifically, her ability to effectively navigate the confirmation hearing for Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
    Those concerns were well-founded. At one point, Feinstein repeated the same question to Barrett within minutes of first asking it. (Barrett answered it the first time). And at the conclusion of the hearing, Feinstein’s comments to Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham that “this is one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in” enraged liberal groups, who demanded she step down as ranking member of the committee.
    Late last month, she did exactly that— following a “long and serious talk” with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (New York).
    Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip, lauded Feinstein’s comments during the hearings on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” but characterized Feinstein’s final comment to Graham as “misleading.” (Durbin will replace Feinstein as ranking minority member on Judiciary.
    At the time of the Judiciary announcement, Feinstein said she planned to increase her attention on wildfire and drought crises in California, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and access to health care.
    Asked to comment on Thursday, a Feinstein spokesman told CNN: “Senator Feinstein works as hard today as she ever has and continues to get bills passed even as the Senate’s legislative work has slowed to a crawl. She gets more done for California than anyone, especially now as the state faces so many major challenges. That will remain her focus.”
    The question for Democrats is, well, what now? Feinstein’s term isn’t up until 2024 — when she will be 91 years old. She was reelected by California voters just two years ago. And Feinstein has had a groundbreaking career, spanning five decades in politics that CNN’s Dana Bash wrote in 2017 “made her an icon — one of the pioneering badass women in Washington who fought their way into an overwhelmingly male power structure and figured out how to stay there.”
    But Mayer’s piece can’t be ignored or dismissed as the work of a partisan journalist — Mayer is widely seen as one of the best investigative reporters in the country.
      Schumer, Durbin and the rest of the Democratic leadership — not to mention President-elect Joe Biden, who served for almost two decades with Feinstein — have to figure out both something to say about the Mayer article and a strategy for what they do next.
      The Point: It’s an uncomfortable thing to discuss how to deal with the demonstrated cognitive decline of a colleague. But when we are talking about a powerful elected official from the largest state in the country, it’s a conversation that Schumer and the rest need to have. And soon.

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