What the political response to Dianne Feinstein’s absence tells us about both parties

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, returned to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday after an extended medical leave, which caused her to miss dozens of key Senate votes and prompted calls for her resignation.

In addition to halting business on the committee – which was evenly split between Democratic and Republican Senators in her absence – for three months, Feinstein’s leave regrettably provoked a predictable political response from both sides: Republicans doubled-down on partisan obstructionism, while a divided Democratic Party played identity politics.

To be sure, Feinstein has put Senate Democrats in an awkward position for months by insisting that she would be returning but not providing any indication as to when. She missed 91 votes during her prolonged absence, which robbed Democrats of crucial floor time to confirm President Biden’s judicial nominees and brought vital legislation to a standstill in the narrowly-divided Senate – especially with Senator John Fetterman, D-Pennsylvania, also out for medical reasons until very recently.

Some Democratic lawmakers publicly urged Feinstein to resign so that the Senate could continue with its business, which would then have tasked California Gov. Gavin Newsom with appointing her replacement until the 2024 election. However, many prominent Democrats decried these calls as sexist, echoing a familiar talking point for a party that has become increasingly defined by identity politics.

“I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way,” Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last month. Other female Democratic Senators like Kristen Gillibrand, D-New York, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Minnesota, also jumped on the bandwagon, saying Feinstein was being treated “unfairly” and being held to an “unacceptable” and “unprecedented” standard.

This is despite the fact that several elderly male senators from past decades – Strom Thurmond, Carter Glass, and Karl Mundt – all received similar treatment when medical issues caused their absence. As the New York Times Editorial Board put it: “In all of those cases, as with Ms. Feinstein, the senators ignored concerns about their capacity and pleas from their colleagues as long as they could.”

Democrats who sounded this ‘sexism’ alarm have only inflamed what was already an uncomfortable situation, and appeared both irresponsible and evasive. Perhaps they were worried that pressuring Feinstein to resign would indirectly place a spotlight on Biden’s age in an election year – but in reality, the spotlight was already there, and Democrats like Pelosi only made it shine brighter by refusing to acknowledge the reality of Feinstein’s case.

Unflattering reports about the 89-year-old senator’s cognitive decline have been swirling for more than a year, even before her medical absence – which until just this week, had no end-date in sight.

Of course, the decision to resign is ultimately Feinstein’s and Feinstein’s alone – and regrettably, the veteran senator seems more inclined to tarnish her legacy than resign prematurely.

It’s reminiscent of the decision made by the late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when President Obama quietly urged her to step down so he could fill her seat with a younger liberal Justice, given Ginsberg’s old age and deteriorating health. As Democrats know all too well, Ginsberg declined to do so, and died just one month before Donald Trump was defeated in the 2020 election. Trump then appointed conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett – Ginsberg’s ideological antithesis – to fill her seat on the bench, solidifying a conservative majority on the high court for decades to come.

Liberal observers and Democratic officials decried Barrett’s swift confirmation, which occurred within weeks of the 2020 election, as hypocritical and brazenly partisan. This was an entirely fair assessment, in light of what the Republican-controlled Senate did just years earlier by blocking President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, from seeing a floor vote for an entire year under the guise that the vacancy occurred during a presidential election year.

Indeed, Republicans have brazenly politicized the judicial confirmation process for years: in 2016 with Garland, 2020 with Barrett, and now in 2023 with Feinstein.

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In April, at Feinstein’s request, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, asked to advance a resolution replacing her on the Judiciary Committee until she could return. Instead of doing the decent thing and honoring Feinstein’s wishes, the top Republican on the panel, Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, along with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, blocked the effort.

Despite some Republicans’ claims to the contrary, this was nothing more than a transparent move designed to stonewall Biden’s judicial nominees and stall proceedings on a number of other crucial matters, including a new ethics reform bill for Supreme Court Justices.

Feinstein’s return ostensibly relieves Senate Democrats of a months-long headache, allowing the party to confirm Biden’s outstanding judicial and cabinet appointments, and to advance key pieces of legislation, the most vital of which will be clearing a debt limit increase before next month.

While Democrats may be out of the woods for a moment, both parties should feel sorrow after the posturing we’ve witnessed in Feinstein’s absence, which is emblematic of how uncivil our politics have become.

Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.

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