By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Last week, The Insider published a story by my accomplished colleague John Rolfe examining claims recently made in the San Francisco Chronicle that California’s 88-year-old Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein is no longer up to the requirements of her job and should retire. His story also used the Chronicle’s April 14 reporting on the Feinstein attacks as a starting point for a more general discussion of age in politics.
John’s article began, “Age is quite the grenade in politics these days.” I agree. I also agree with many of the points made in his well-written article. But there are a few important aspects not addressed there, so I feel compelled to add my two cents to the discussion.
Might There Be Some Unstated Agenda to the Feinstein Attacks?
First, I have no idea whether or not Senator Feinstein is losing her memory and unable to meet the needs of her constituents without, as her detractors claim, undue support from her staff. She has responded to the claims with the statement: “The last year has been extremely painful and distracting for me, flying back and forth to visit my dying husband who passed just a few weeks ago…But 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.”
Those defending Feinstein’s competence–Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Feinstein’s fellow California Senator Alejandro (Alex) Padilla–did so to the San Francisco Chronicle in on-the-record interviews. Those attacking her requested and obtained anonymity. According to the Chronicle, these included four U.S. senators—three of them, Democrats, three former Feinstein staffers, and a California Democratic member of Congress.
The Chronicle stated that “each spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they said they did not want to jeopardize their relationship with her and their mutual friends and colleagues.” Some claimed they were remaining anonymous “because of the sensitivity of the topic” and “out of respect to Feinstein.” But clearly, anonymous attacks on someone’s competence rendered publicly do not show respect. And based on their stated excuses, protection of their careers and political relationships was the real motive for the anonymity.
Unless one is a whistleblower exposing wrongdoing, for whom the repercussions could be persecution, imprisonment or death, truth should not be hidden behind anonymity. And public delivery in the form of anonymous gossip and innuendo makes claims such as those proliferating against Feinstein questionable. One must know who is speaking in order to assess what unstated agenda may be behind dissemination of the claims—not to mention providing the subject a fair opportunity to respond. Former employees may (or may not) have some personal axe to grind. Colleagues may (or may not) have other, career-related motivations.
Furthermore, it is interesting that pushes for resignation or retirement promulgated by innuendo and rushed to conclusion seem so often aimed at Democrats. First, Franken. Now, Feinstein.
Dianne Feinstein is not up for reelection until 2024. If she were to retire now, California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom would appoint her successor. But that replacement would not automatically serve out the rest of Feinstein’s six-year term. Rather, he or she would have to run for the seat in the next regularly scheduled statewide general election—that is, the 2022 midterms, a mere seven months away.
This would give Republicans an early opening to obtain Feinstein’s Senate seat, jeopardizing the Democrats’ razor-thin majority in a Senate which is currently divided 50-50 between the two parties. And given the current anti-democratic actions of the Republican leadership, no less than the survival of democracy will likely depend, in part, on which party controls the Senate.
Age Limits for Political Retirement? – NO!
According to a YouGov poll in January, 58% of Americans favor an age limit for elected officials. John’s article reported that this would include mandatory retirement at 70, making 71% of current US senators (23) ineligible to continue in office. On the plus side of such a requirement, his article opined that America is “in dire need of fresh, innovative ideas and positive, youthful energy.”
That’s a nice thought in theory, but whether fresh ideas are beneficial depends on what the ideas are. And over many decades we’ve had too much change based on mere slogans like “it’s time for a change” or it’s time for “new ideas,” without any specification of what those ideas are or where that so-called change is intended to lead the country.
As for “youthful energy,” Marjorie Taylor Greene has youthful energy. Josh Hawley and Madison Cawthorn and Matt Gaetz have youthful energy. That kind of new blood can be just as poisonous as old blood. (To his credit, John acknowledged that an age limit could automatically sweep out effective legislators, to be replaced by “God knows who.”)
It has also been pointed out that age limits and requirements have been placed on occupations like driving automobiles and piloting planes. But those require physical dexterity necessary to public safety. The Senate does not. To impose age limits on the Congress or other political offices not only amounts to age discrimination, it deprives voters of their right to keep or oust the senator of their choice. The ultimate yea or nay on the longevity of a politician’s career should be determined at the ballot box.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.