Feinstein is Declining But What About Tuberville

A twist on an evergreen debate.

The Atlantic’s David Graham contends “Dianne Feinstein Is the Future of the Senate.” It’s a familiar tale.

Look, it’s right there in the name: Senateborrowed from the Romans and meaning a “council of elders.” More than ever, the label fits. This is the oldest Senate, by average age, in American history, at 64 years. Jim Inhofe and Richard Shelby, both 87, have announced plans to retire. Chuck Grassley, 88, is running for reelection this fall. But even he is a shade younger than Dianne Feinstein, also 88.

Yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle published a remarkable story about Feinstein, California’s senior senator. Some of the best Washington coverage is found in the stories that reveal to the public what people inside politics are saying privately, and the reporters Tal Kopan and Joe Garofoli got people to share deep concerns about Feinstein’s fitness to be a senator. In the opening of the story, an unnamed Democratic member of Congress from California recounted that “they had to reintroduce themselves to Feinstein multiple times during an interaction that lasted several hours.” (Feinstein did not grant an interview to the Chronicle, but she said in a statement that she has no intention of stepping down. “There’s no question I’m still serving and delivering for the people of California, and I’ll put my record up against anyone’s.”)

The question of what to make of senators like Feinstein, who have no desire to leave the Senate but whose ability to do the job is in doubt, is not new. But no one has come up with any good answers so far, and the matter will become only more pressing as Americans live longer and the average age of senators advances.

Even at their best, not all members are particularly sharp or engaged in policy details, it must be said; Tommy Tubervilles do manage to get elected. But for most of her long and impressive career, Feinstein was known for her acuity. “She was an intellectual and political force not that long ago, and that’s why my encounter with her was so jarring,” the member told the Chronicle. “Because there was just no trace of that.” At times, Feinstein seems to be her old self; but disconcertingly often, she seems confused or relies heavily on staffers.

Although the story lays concerns out in more detail, and with more insider Democratic discussion, the whispers about Feinstein’s decline are not new. A 2020 New Yorker story covered some of the same ground. She raised eyebrows with her praise for Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings—a process her party colleagues hated—and with her meandering questions in some sessions.

The issue is not Feinstein’s past record, though, but her present and future. And refusing to know when to leave is a tradition as venerable in the Senate as Feinstein. Over history, 301 senators have died in office, and though some were struck down by accidents or illnesses long before their time, others were quite elderly. Some have remained mentally sharp but physically ill, jeopardizing their ability to serve; others have stayed physically fit but struggled mentally.

In 2014, my then-colleague Molly Ball wrote about attending Thad Cochran’s campaign events in Mississippi and noticed him slipping. “As he made his way toward the exit, the senator held out his hand to me. I had met and interviewed him less than half an hour before. ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ he said with a kindly smile. ‘I’m Thad Cochran.'”

The Cochran campaign protested, and he won reelection, but ignoring Cochran’s problems was impossible. In 2017, he missed several weeks while ill, and when he came back he seemed confused about work. In one case, he voted in favor of an amendment before staffers corrected him to vote no. The same month, a Capitol Hill pharmacist told STAT News he routinely sent Alzheimer’s drugs to congressional offices. Cochran finally retired the following spring, and died in 2019.

Strom Thurmond, the oldest senator in history, held on even longer, staying in office until he was 100, despite documented concerns about his fitness for the job. He’d said he wanted to die in office; instead, leaving office seemed to spell the end for him, and he died shortly after retirement.

Several years later, Robert Byrd eclipsed Thurmond’s record to become the longest-serving senator. By the end of his term, the West Virginian was frail. In 2008, the Senate allowed proxy voting for one day to allow him to vote from a hospital; in 2009, with Democratic priorities on the line, he was wheeled into the Senate to cast votes shortly after being discharged from care. Byrd died in 2010, while in office. Last year, Democrats experienced a mild panic when Pat Leahy, 82 and the president pro tempore of the Senate (a title afforded the most senior member of the majority) was hospitalized, though he soon recovered. Assuming Leahy serves out his term, he’ll soon pass Thurmond in the record books for the length of his tenure.

To some critics, the questions about Feinstein are unfair or even sexist. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell offered a quasi-dismissal of the story on Twitter, writing: “I understand concerns about Dianne Feinstein but read whispers about her in this Senate context: at least 50 senators are 100% dependent on staff, most senators are over 90% dependent on staff & Strom Thurmond died in office in 2003 at age 100 long after obvious mental decline.” In fact, this only underscores the danger: None of this is reassuring, and if Feinstein is not an outlier, the challenge is even steeper than many citizens might realize.

I’ve written here many times over the years about the problems of the American gerontocracy. Even aside from the higher propensity for cognitive decline at very advanced ages, it’s just incredibly hard to stay current at some point. Changes in technology and social mores eventually overtake just about everyone.

Obviously, there are exceptions. Warren Buffett seems to be doing just fine at 91 and Nancy Pelosi is doing just fine running the House at 82. A blanket rule simply forcing people out at, say, 75 would be unwise even if it were legal.

Rather than an age limit we could, as regular commenter Michael Reynolds suggests when these topics come up, institute some form of cognitive testing requirement. But that raises another issue that Graham addresses only in passing: there are some relatively young Members of Congress who are dimwits or even dangerously delusional. Aren’t they more dangerous than a slightly addled octogenarian?

Theoretically, of course, the screening mechanism for all of this is the voters. But that’s really true only at the margins.

Leaving aside that there are powerful incentives to return long-in-the-tooth incumbents with a great deal of seniority to Congress, “the voters” aren’t really picking these candidates except in the breach. In Feinstein’s case, she emerged from California’s bizarre “jungle primary” system which further enhanced the advantage of incumbency and name recognition. Tuberville was the winner of a particularly bizarre Republican primary in a state where, barring truly fantastic scandals, the Republican primary is the de facto general election.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Health, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    the voters” aren’t really picking these candidates except in the breach.

    Is this really true anymore? I’m not that familiar with Tuberville’s campaign but he most certainly isn’t some long time Republican trencherman working his way up to a Senate seat. To the extent the Republican power brokers got behind him it was after the voters showed they wanted him.

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  2. CSK says:

    @MarkedMan:
    Tuberville got elected to the senate because he was the football coach at Auburn, and he beat ‘Bama six times. Period.

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  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Feinstein’s travails guarantee that she’ll face a strong primary challenge. Unfortunately, rather than one or perhaps two serious challengers, she’ll face a challenger from every interest group in Cali. Perhaps a serious opponent will emerge from the primary that is also a Dem and we all can move on and Diane can retire.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    @CSK: That’s my point. He was chosen by the rank and file voters, not the political elites. Trump was the perfect example of the voters getting exactly what they wanted despite the elites, and with Tuberville they just went along for the ride. It’s so forging to think that the voters would chose well if it wasn’t for the skanky politicians, but since the time we became totally reliant on primaries, that hasn’t been true. The people of Alabama got exactly the person they wanted.

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  5. CSK says:

    @MarkedMan:
    I agree with you, but I’m not sure what “forging” means in this context.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    @CSK: curse clumsy fingers, autocorrect and lack of edit button! For the record, here’s what I meant to say.

    That’s my point. He was chosen by the rank and file voters, not the political elites. Trump was the perfect example of the voters getting exactly what they wanted despite the elites, and with Tuberville those elites just went along for the ride. It’s so comforting to think that the voters would chose well if it wasn’t for the skanky politicians, but since the time we became totally reliant on primaries, that hasn’t been true. The people of Alabama got exactly the person they wanted.

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  7. CSK says:

    @MarkedMan:
    Tuberville crushed Sessions in the primary and crushed Jones in the general. I think the “elites” knew when they were beaten, so, yes, they had to go along for the ride.

    I wonder what would happen if Nick Saban decided to run against Tuberville.

  8. Jen says:

    Americans like to think they eschew the trappings of royalty, but the way that these senators are set up in their seats, a hairs-breath away from “Weekend at Bernie’s,” reminds me of incapacitated monarchs with decisions being made by those who surround them. I suppose we just have to hope that their hiring practices are sound, because it’s the staffers who are actually in charge.

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  9. senyordave says:

    Tuberville must be hoping that Herschel Walker wins in Georgia, because he will immediately have some competition for dumbest person in the Senate.
    Walker is running a textbook Republican campaign in a southern state. Say tons of stupid shit then claim you never said it. Lie about your record and then double down on the lies. And for God’s sake, make sure to skip all debates. Almost feel a little guilty about generalizing, but there is a reason why most of the bottom ten states in anything good (or top ten in anything bad) sre in the south.

  10. @James:

    A blanket rule simply forcing people out at, say, 75 would be unwise even if it were legal.

    I am not so sure about the lack of wisdom of some upper age threshold, as your reasoning seems to favor the exceptions (e.g., Pelosi) and not the broader rule. I would favor an age limit, even if it was in the upper range (78 or 80), although I think I like 75. The odds that some in their 80s will be able to fully serve their constituents seems low, and hence I would be more than happy to have such a cut-off.

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  11. @MarkedMan:

    To the extent the Republican power brokers got behind him it was after the voters showed they wanted him.

    The point is that the voters don’t pick Senators in non-competitive states, the primary voters do. And the primary voters are a substantial subset of the overall voter pool.

    So, the issue is that it is hard to claim, across the country, in fact, that what we get in the Senate and House is an actual reflection of real voter preferences.

  12. MarkedMan says:

    @senyordave: There is a motivating force that exists everywhere but is dominant in the South: the belief that the primary purpose of governance, above virtually all else, is keep people in their place. It is a powerful motivation to many people if they believe undeserving commoner is doing better than them. Unfortunately that culture has completely taken over the national Republican Party, and is infecting more and more of the country. See, for example, Wisconsin, previously the poster child for Midwestern common sense and neighborliness and now a cesspool of vituperations and resentments.

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  13. @CSK:

    Tuberville got elected to the senate because he was the football coach at Auburn, and he beat ‘Bama six times. Period.

    This is too simplistic.

    Tuberville won largely because Jeff Sessions was out of favor with Trump and Trump support was the key variable in that primary contest.

    Tuberville rose to the level of being Sessions’ main opponent because of his name recognition from being a football coach. He was also a pure Trump era candidate: celebrity bluster, telling it like it is from a position of pure ignorance.

    But as James notes: win the primary, win the seat (save in the craziest of contexts).

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  14. @CSK:

    I wonder what would happen if Nick Saban decided to run against Tuberville.

    Saban is substantially smarter than Tuberville, and Bama is more important in this state than is Auburn. Further, Saban is as close to Jesus walking the Earth as you are going to get around here. He could beat Tuberville, probably even running as a D.

    But, I can’t see Saban wanting to put up with the BS of politics.

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  15. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Do open primaries lessen that effect?

    Alabama has nonpartisan registration. There is no option to affiliate with a political party on the voter registration form. Details: Independent voters are allowed to vote in primary elections. All voters must choose one party’s ballot to vote on, but they are not tied to that party.

    In any case, I take your point, but I still think you are too easily dismissing my point. 64% of Alabamian voters pulled the lever for Trump. 61% voted for Tuberville. The voters had other choices but they wanted a Republican, full stop. Wouldn’t have mattered who had run on the Democratic ticket. Two thirds of the state voters want a Republican regardless of which Republican that is. And in modern times Republican candidates are chosen by voters, often in direct defiance of the will of the Republican Party leaders.

    Tuberville is there because of Alabamanian voters. He was not imposed on them by Party elites.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I can’t see Saban wanting to put up with the BS of politics.

    That’s a long way of saying, “He’s too smart to be in the Senate.”

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  17. Jay L Gischer says:

    I’m a bit ruffled by the description of California’s primary system as “bizarre”. It’s unusual, yeah. But “bizarre” seems a bit more pejorative than is warranted by any evidence you might have offered. If I understand correctly, Alaska just adopted a system that is more or less the same.

    I think the intention is to moderate outcomes in a state where one party has a big advantage. Does it work? I don’t know, but it seems ok.

    And by the way, Feinstein was a senator here long before that system came in. She started in 1992 when she won a special election to replace Pete Wilson, who had resigned to be governor.

    This is all a quibble, I understand and appreciate the primary concerns in the OP.

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  18. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Sure, but as you yourself noted, Tuberville rose to eminence precisely because he was a football coach. That Tuberville is a blustering fool just adds to that.
    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Saban isn’t Jesus. According to one of his young female fans, he’s God.

  19. @MarkedMan:

    Do open primaries lessen that effect?

    No, not really. Most people stick with their general partisan preference (although I will admit that I regularly vote in the GOP primary because I understand it is the real election). But beyond that, the turnout differential means is not the same electorate. I think this point is usually downplayed, if not ignored, in these conversations.

    64% of Alabamian voters pulled the lever for Trump. 61% voted for Tuberville. The voters had other choices but they wanted a Republican, full stop.

    No argument there. But that means whoever win the primary wins the seat. Therefore the election that matters is the primary, not the general.

    Wouldn’t have mattered who had run on the Democratic ticket. Two thirds of the state voters want a Republican regardless of which Republican that is. And in modern times Republican candidates are chosen by voters, often in direct defiance of the will of the Republican Party leaders.

    This is where you are making an error. The candidate are chosen by a specific set of voters, and that can very much dictate the kind of candidate you end up with.

    Further, by ultimately ascribing electoral outcomes to the will of “the voters” we legitimie and routinize a system that produces candidates like Tuberville (and Trump and MTG and Boebert and maybe Dr. Oz, etc).

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  20. @CSK:

    Saban isn’t Jesus. According to one of his young female fans, he’s God.

    Come now, get your Southern Baptist theology straight: Jesus is God, and He is the one of the trinity that walks the earth.

    Sure, but as you yourself noted, Tuberville rose to eminence precisely because he was a football coach. That Tuberville is a blustering fool just adds to that.

    You made it out to be the reason, while I am saying it is one of several reasons. I maintain the key variable in that primary was Trump, not his coaching CV.

    1
  21. @MarkedMan:

    Tuberville is there because of Alabamanian voters. He was not imposed on them by Party elites.

    I think you are missing my point. I am not absolving the voters in some way and I am certainly not saying party elites gave us Tuberville.

    I am saying that we get the candidates we get, and the office-holder we get, through a system that heavy privileges a sub-set of voters (primary voters) over general election voters but then we assign preferences and responsibility to the general election voters specifically and also make it sound like electoral democracy is working optimally because this is what “The Voters” want.

    I believe that by making these kinds of statements we are papering over a deeper problem, which is that out systems are not nearly as representative as we would like them to be.

    Our language validates a system that needs to be examined more closely, not endorsed by saying “well, this is what voters want.”

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  22. Jon says:

    @CSK: @Steven L. Taylor: Saban is evil on par with Hitler, Stalin and Lil Wayne. I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive him for how he left LSU for the Dolphins, then bailed on them to come back and coach an SEC rival.

    That said he’s way too smart to get involved in politics, especially Alabama politics. And, what I said above aside, he’s actually a pretty good person.

    1
  23. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Again–and I defer to your superior knowledge both as a resident of the state and as a political scientist–you have to agree that Tuberville’s celebrity as a football coach gave him a distinct edge. If he’d been a fanatically pro-Trump non-entity, how far would he have gotten?

    Well, as I’ve mentioned a tedious number of times before, I’m one of those rare being who had absolutely NO religious upbringing, so forgive me for my failure to apprehend the intricacies of Baptist theology.

  24. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The candidate are chosen by a specific set of voters, and that can very much dictate the kind of candidate you end up with.

    Sure. They are chosen by the voters, D, R or other, who chose to vote in the election that will pick the Senator. What else are you proposing?

  25. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Trump was the perfect example of the voters getting exactly what they wanted despite the elites

    I think a lot of people don’t realize how much Trump was a accident for the Party. His crudity and ignorance were an embarrassment, but he did have an R after his name. Once the transition became real, Chris Christie got pitched as transition manager and Pence was installed. Pence is a creature of the Koch’s and he salted a lot of Kochtopus people throughout the administration. And McConnell controlled the Senate. Trump had no agenda to speak of except his wall and he liked tax cuts for rich people, so Moscow Mitch was able to do pretty much what he wanted, which didn’t even include Trump’s wall.

    Moscow still has the helm and the Kochtopus has piles of money to spread around. As long as they vote how they’re told the GOP elites are perfectly happy with the Tubervilles and Ron Johnsons of the Senate.

  26. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “But, I can’t see Saban wanting to put up with the BS of politics.”

    Or the pay cut.

    1
  27. @CSK:

    you have to agree that Tuberville’s celebrity as a football coach gave him a distinct edge

    I didn’t say otherwise.

    Well, as I’ve mentioned a tedious number of times before, I’m one of those rare being who had absolutely NO religious upbringing, so forgive me for my failure to apprehend the intricacies of Baptist theology.

    My response, while theologically accurate, was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

    1
  28. @MarkedMan: Some day I am going to crack the nut that allows me to convey to you (and others) what I am trying to get at here, but I expect today is not that day. 😉

    2
  29. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I know. As was my response to it.

  30. @MarkedMan: @Steven L. Taylor: I will say this:

    1. I am proposing thinking about whether, in fact, we get a government that is truly “chosen by the voters” and if so, in what ways that is true.
    2. I am proposing considering whether the seemingly democratic processes we engage in, in their totality, actually produce representative outcomes.
    3. I would propose doing away with primaries for candidate selection.
    4. I would propose proportional representation elections.

    I think, in general, that Americans are so locked into the paradigm of our system that it becomes really difficult to get people to even see the basics of what I am critiquing. This makes sense since most people only have a passing knowledge of what is outside the US. It is like trying to explain the intricacies of American football to someone who only knows soccer, for lack of a better comparison off the top of my head.

    There is probably a book’s worth of words needed to fully explain the above, but I do try to nudge the arguments forward here at OTB over time.

    All of this intersects with our ongoing butting of heads over parties.

    6
  31. One last thought: it is more accurate to say that “the voters and the system chose Tuberville” (or, really, any office-holder) than to simply say “the voters chose X.”

    This is, perhaps, the core of my point. It is system + voters, not just voters.

  32. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: @CSK:
    My argument, which I admittedly didn’t much flesh out in the OP, is one that @Steven L. Taylor has written about rather extensively and mentions upthread. Essentially, in Alabama as in many other states, the dominant party primary is essentially the general election and primaries are really strange beasts. They’re held at odd times, attract a very small subset of highly motivated voters, and tend to hinge on fringe issues. Tuberville’s football career gave him celebrity that, combined with Trump’s endorsement, helped him beat former Senator and Trump AG Jeff Sessions in the GOP run-off. Doug Jones, even as an incumbent, had zero shot against a non-pederast Republican opponent.

    @Steven L. Taylor: I agree that there would be little harm in a cutoff of 75. There are plenty of people perfectly capable of serving after that point but getting some new blood in there wouldn’t be a bad thing.

    @Jay L Gischer: I’ve become opposed to primaries, period, as a really poor way to pick candidates. The jungle variant, though, has the additional disadvantage of essentially upending the parties entirely. While I think it would have been possible for Feinstein to have been picked off in a field of Democrats, she was naturally going to be in the top two in this system and her superior resources would have made picking her off in a two-roound process extremely difficult.

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  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I see your point about the candidate selected in the primary not being the “will of the people,” but that only clarifies that, to the degree that the primary selectorate is smaller than the general electorate, “the people” probably DGAF about what names occupy the candidate slots in the general election. Whether this is a carryover from the days when the political machine (and/or the elites) selected candidates or whether it had other roots is beyond me. But nobody is preventing people from voting in primaries–except as those particular people are prevented from voting in the general election, of course.

    (I would also suggest that the contention that Democrats outnumber Republicans at large shows that Democrats could probably have better results in mid-term elections if they would go to the polls instead of complaining that the balance will shift. As Captain Planet said all those years ago, “The power is yours.”)

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  34. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Further, by ultimately ascribing electoral outcomes to the will of “the voters” we legitimie and routinize a system that produces candidates like Tuberville

    I’m not clear where you are going. Are you saying that popular primaries are a terrible way to pick a candidate because the primary electorate has too high a percentage of looms and cranks and we would be better served if some vetting occurred? Then we are on the same page. But if you think that some other democratic system exists that would tap into some hidden majority of sensible Alabamian voters, well, 200 years of history says different.

  35. MarkedMan says:
  36. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: To add one more dynamic to the whole “will of the people” argument (and to expand on something my previous comment only hinted at), if one allows for passivity having the same weight as action (which you probably don’t–and don’t have to, either 😉 ), then to some extent, the fact that some particular group/s of voters prevails in the primaries may well reflect “the will of the people.”

    No one is forcing the “good” ( 🙁 ) Republicans to let the MAGAts select the candidate, and in the same sense, no one is forcing Democrats to let the moderates/progressives/liberals control the selection either. But it IS possible that uncast ballots are shaping the outcomes in less than salutary ways. Voters may be able to correct that, but they won’t know for sure if they stay home.

  37. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am proposing thinking about whether, in fact, we get a government that is truly “chosen by the voters”

    Aren’t you going farther than that? Aren’t you saying we are NOT getting that result? So let me cut to the quick: what is it about what you are proposing that would end up with Alabamians installing good governance and operational excellence officials, as opposed to a bunch of clowns?

    More specifically, there is a huge range of outcomes from proportional representation, from good governance to horrible. What mechanism are you proposing to keep us on the good end of that spectrum? Or is it just chance?

  38. Mimai says:

    Most would probably agree that diagnosed dementia should rule someone out of such a position. But even dementia has enormous variability…in severity and domains of impact.

    Moving beyond dementia to the specific domains of neurocognitive function: attention, perception, processing speed, working memory, executive functioning, fluency, etc. Which of these are more/less important to the position? Which are essential?

    Let’s say that we settle on the core domains that are essential — the ones we would want to test for. Do we set an absolute threshold (eg, 1 SD below the mean) or a relative one (eg, x% decrease from the individual’s baseline upon assuming office)?

    But even here it is not so simple. For the absolute threshold, do we use age-matched norms (eg, a senator who is 71 would be compared to the mean performance of 70-79 year olds)? Or do we use a single “ideal” age norm (eg, all senators will be compared to the mean performance of 40-49 year olds)?

    I pose these questions not to make a “the devil is in the details” point (though, it obviously is). Rather, I pose them to focus the discussion on what exactly we consider to be the essential cognitive domains for the position. And then what we consider to be the minimum performance in those domains necessary to hold the position.

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  39. Michael Cain says:

    Analogies are always tricky, but…

    Imagine a world where to publish an academic paper, it is necessary to first achieve tenure, then to achieve head of department, and then to achieve head of department at one of the top 100 universities in the US. Oh, you get to do research before that, and people in those 100 privileged positions get to publish your research w/o giving you credit if they want to, but you don’t get to publish until you reach one of those 100 privileged positions. How old are you likely to be before you make it? 50? 60? 70? Once you get there, isn’t your inclination to hold on to the position as long as possible since you finally get to publish?

    Senate legislation of any significance is written by — or at least at the direction of — committee chairs, and it takes a long time to reach that level. Enormous temptation once you get there to hang on. Manchin is 74 and is finally chair of the Senate committee where he can write national energy legislation favoring fossil fuels. Short of losing a primary, he’ll be there for years more.

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  40. wr says:

    @Michael Cain: “Short of losing a primary, he’ll be there for years more.”

    Well, we can always root for a stroke…