In the lead-up to Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in October, Democrats fretted that the party’s ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein, wasn’t up to the task. Fear among congressional Democrats was “widespread,” according to Politico. The 87-year-old Feinstein “gets confused by reporters’ questions, or will offer different answers to the same question depending on where or when she’s asked,” and appears “frail.”
Those fears, in retrospect, were well founded. Republicans were stealing yet another seat, rushing to fill the vacancy that opened up after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September. With the November presidential elections coming up, the hearings were doubly important—an opportunity to highlight a norm-busting, anti-democratic Republican Party. But Feinstein conducted the hearings as if they were occurring in a normal political environment. She concluded them by saying, “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in” and then hugging Republican Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham, a gift to the Republican who was then engaged in a tough reelection campaign. The image of Feinstein embracing Graham only underlined how out of touch the party’s leadership was with its grassroots—and with reality.
Troubling reporting from The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer suggests that Democrats—and Feinstein’s own staff—have been concerned about her mental sharpness for some time. “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,” Mayer writes. “They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, himself a spry (by congressional terms) 70 years old, recently had “serious and painful talks” with Feinstein and encouraged her to step aside “with her dignity intact.” But Schumer had to repeat the conversation a second time after Feinstein forgot it.
Feinstein’s declining health points to a larger problem. The Democratic Party is ruled by a gerontocracy. Much has been made of Joe Biden being the oldest first-term president in history, but he is younger than Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Democrats continue to win young voters by huge margins but look nothing like them. Instead of grooming younger talent, House and Senate leadership is full of members in their seventies and eighties who seem hell-bent on retaining their plum positions. This is a party that desperately needs to get younger, or else it will continue to bungle basic governance and alienate both its future leaders and the base.
Mayer’s piece is grim. Feinstein, “a stickler for detail,” still insists on micromanaging her office’s work. But she no longer has the capacity to manage the work her position demands of her. “It’s been a disaster,” a former Senate staffer told Mayer. The senator’s staff are forced to “defend her and make her seem normal” as she struggles. Ordinarily, Feinstein’s position would mean that she should be directing the party’s strategy, particularly when it comes to the judiciary, a primary focus of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. But Feinstein has not been up to the task. “Other members were constantly trying to go around her because, as chair, she didn’t want to do anything, and she also didn’t want them doing anything,” the former staffer said. Feinstein’s responsibilities are being pushed to her staff. The larger work of planning and strategizing appears to be barely happening at all.
It’s a depressing portrait of cognitive decline but also of a party whose leadership is failing to adequately respond to the interlocking crises of the moment. Feinstein is the oldest congressional Democrat, at 87. And Democratic leadership is closer in age to Feinstein than it is to Schumer. Pelosi’s key lieutenants Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn are 81 and 80, respectively. Seventeen Senate Democrats are over the age of 70. And, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78, congressional Republican leadership is significantly younger than Democratic leadership—despite the fact that Republican voters are, on average, older than Democrats.
Democratic leadership, moreover, is fighting efforts to make it just a little bit younger. Mayer recounts that Sheldon Whitehouse—himself a spring chicken at 65—attempted to challenge Dick Durbin’s position as Feinstein’s deputy in the Judiciary Committee. (Durbin is 76.) That move was blocked in a secret ballot.
The failure to replace Feinstein as Judiciary Committee chair in 2018 has had far-reaching consequences, culminating in the disaster that was the Barrett confirmation. As with the failure to elevate Whitehouse, it points to a larger problem. Democratic leadership has failed to promote younger leaders within the party. Worse than that, it has disparaged its brightest young stars and blamed them for losses in moderate areas of the country. And when those elderly leaders are attacked for being old and out of touch, they close ranks, further blocking the progress of younger Democrats. More importantly, as we see with Feinstein, they may hold on to power, but they do little with it.
The Senate has, of course, always been dominated by geriatrics. “Some former Feinstein aides insist that rumors of her cognitive decline have been exaggerated and that video clips taken out of context can make almost anyone look foolish. They also bridle at singling out her condition, because declining male senators, including Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, and Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, were widely known by the end of their careers to be non–compos mentis,” Mayer writes. A former aide, moreover, told Mayer that “she’s still smarter and quicker than at least a third of the other members,” even if she isn’t as sharp as she once was.
This is hardly a defense. In fact, it only underlines the problem. If a significant portion of the Democratic caucus is not fully mentally competent, that’s an indictment of the entire body. Increased media scrutiny, combined with social media and a resurgent young left, may make it harder for the gerontocracy to hold on to power in the future. But for the moment, nothing is changing. Democratic voters may be young, but the party’s leadership is ancient.