Uncomfortable Conversations

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There’s an ugly political spectacle playing out in press reports and on social media tonight about Sen. Dianne Feinstein who has appeared frail and sometimes confused in recent public appearances and has been absent from the Senate since February suffering from shingles. Feinstein agreed under pressure last year to announce that she would retire at the end of her present term in January 2025. Now there is another round of media pressing her to resign sooner. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) became the first high-ranking Democrat today to call for Feinstein to step down.

This is an undignified and unkind spectacle that shouldn’t be playing out on Twitter or in press stories. Feinstein should simply step down. There is no issue she espouses that wouldn’t be advocated for by an appointed successor in 2023–24 and an elected one in 2025. The idea that it is acceptable to be absent from the Senate for months at a time with no clear prospect of return is absurd.

I said on Twitter this afternoon that rather than allowing the current spectacle to play out publicly, it is incumbent on Gov. Newsom and Sen. Schumer to go to Sen. Feinstein and/or her family and/or her staff and say she needs to step down. A number of people responded that those conversations have probably already taken place but to no avail.

Is that true? Maybe. Probably. But clearly not directly enough or clearly enough.

Fundamentally this is on Sen. Feinstein. But it’s not clear to me that Feinstein is even in the position to make this decision. This is a collective failure that starts with Feinstein herself but also includes the Senate Democratic leadership, the highest Democratic leadership in California and her staff and her family. To most of us, regardless of what respect we may have for Feinstein’s genuinely trailblazing political career, she is a vote, a vote that really needs to be in Washington and engaged full-time. Of course, to her staff and her family it’s a very different story. I don’t know who among those players is in a position to make this decision or reason with Sen. Feinstein. But whoever it is, those two (Newsom or Schumer or both) need to have that conversation with them.

Has it already happened? I’m sure it has at some level. But I doubt either Newsom or Schumer has said to Feinstein or her family or staff: she needs to step down and if she doesn’t I will, with great regret, need to say publicly that I think she should. That’s a very hard conversation to have and that’s a very rough ultimatum to have to give. But that’s where we are. And it is selfishness on the part of all involved not to have had it. Feinstein’s career shouldn’t end this way. And critical votes shouldn’t be hanging in the balance for weeks or months because she can’t be in D.C.

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