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: Senate, borrowed 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.