The Feinstein Problem

California’s primary showed why the Democratic Party is stuck in place.

Side-by-side of Dianne Feinstein and Gavin Newsom.
Dianne Feinstein, Gavin Newsom. Photos by Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

A little over three months ago, the delegates of the California Democratic Party declined to endorse five-term incumbent Dianne Feinstein for re-election. They instead came just shy of endorsing Kevin de León, her progressive challenger and the leader of the state Senate’s Democrats. This seemed, for some, to herald a real and portentous race pitting the party’s newly animated and restless progressive activists against one of the most respected figures of the party’s establishment.

That race never materialized. Feinstein won by over 30 percentage points on Tuesday. De León came very close to losing his spot in a November runoff to a Republican with no money, name recognition, or political experience. His poor showing was a sign of the obstacles facing progressive statewide candidates in California and the dynamics holding the Democratic Party in its current ideological place. Those dynamics have shaped not only Dianne Feinstein’s re-election bid, but the California gubernatorial race as well.

De León’s tepid showing was anticipated by, among others, the Washington Post’s David Weigel, who noted Sunday that de León wasn’t a real presence on television and that his few major backers, like billionaire Tom Steyer, skimped on their spending for him, and a number of articles about his campaign spotlighted lonely drives from stop to stop in his Chevy Volt singing Morrissey lines–“Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”?—to himself. Beyond the standard disadvantages of running against an establishment incumbent, de León also ran up against California’s electoral makeup. While California is heavily and increasingly Democratic, it isn’t terribly progressive. The electorate, as FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone wrote, is dominated by white voters and relatively well-to-do homeowners rather than the voters of color and renters that might boost more left-leaning candidates.

Tuesday’s results suggest Feinstein really is, as her supporters say, a candidate who reflects the current preferences of the Democratic electorate in the state of California. That fact does not fundamentally resolve, though, the question of whether it is good for the Democratic Party—and for a country whose democratic institutions are already wildly and intentionally unrepresentative of the population by age—that a 26-year incumbent, who will end her likely next term at the age of 91, will be returning to the United States Senate. This isn’t, of course, a fundamentally important question to party leaders—who aren’t solely motivated, as progressives seem to believe, by antipathy to progressive boat-rockers like de León, although that antipathy is clearly real. If they wanted to, party leaders could have pushed Feinstein to make an exit and replaced her with another establishment-friendly Democrat. They did not: As far as the Democratic Party is concerned, the seat that Dianne Feinstein currently holds belongs, personally, to Dianne Feinstein, who deserves to hold it until she drops dead.

Defenders of Feinstein’s incumbency generally cite her competence and experience. Feinstein is indeed well-versed in the kind of transactional, collaborative, bipartisan politics that no longer exists in the United States Congress. This is something like being fluent in Esperanto. The primary responsibilities of a Democratic senator in 2018 are writing legislation that cannot pass and grandstanding in support of Democratic messaging. These are things that can be accomplished by political veterans and newcomers alike.

The through-line in Democratic messaging in advance of this year’s midterm elections is opposition to President Trump—a very easy task for Democrats that has proven inexplicably difficult for Feinstein. In August, she told an audience that Trump could be a good president with some personal growth, a line with which most Democrats who have followed the policies being implemented by the president and his behavior over the past several years would probably disagree. FiveThirtyEight’s numbers show, moreover, that Feinstein has cast more votes for the Trump agenda than most of her colleagues and more than one would expect given Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in California. Almost all of those votes were for several of Trump’s nominees, and a vote for CIA Director Gina Haspel even seemed possible too earlier this year. Feinstein was initially undecided, but ultimately voted no over Haspel’s involvement with the CIA’s torture program under George W. Bush.

This move is in keeping with Feinstein’s prior work investigating that program and is a bit out of step with her long-standing support for another form of state sadism. When she first ran for statewide office in 1990, Feinstein goaded delegates at the state party convention into booing her over her support for the death penalty. Those boos were later used in her campaign advertising. The bloodlust among moderate Democrats that similarly encouraged Bill Clinton to make a point of executing a mentally disabled man in 1992 has since fallen out of fashion. A growing number of Democrats now view the death penalty, correctly, as an expensive way to send disproportionately black and sometimes innocent prisoners to grisly, pointless deaths.

Feinstein has been one of the party’s holdouts, having expressed support for capital punishment as recently as 2013. Word came a couple of weeks ago, though, that Feinstein, glancing over her shoulder at de León, has since changed her position. “It became crystal clear to me that the risk of unequal application is high and its effect on deterrence is low,” she said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times in May. The Times’ Sarah Wire wrote that Feinstein’s staffers “could not pinpoint exactly when the shift occurred.” A few weeks earlier, Feinstein, long one of the Democratic Party’s most committed drug warriors, told reporters that she no longer opposed legalizing marijuana.

This, like it or not, is how progress happens for Democrats. The California governor’s race offers another tidy lesson about the party’s habits. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, both Democrats, were the presumptive front-runners. Had they both taken the top two spots in yesterday’s jungle primary, they would have faced each other in November’s general election, shutting the Republican candidates out from contention entirely.

This seemingly would have been the ideal outcome for Democrats—months on end of two promising Democratic figures advancing Democratic ideas to the public ahead of an election the party literally cannot lose. It is not, however, the outcome Gavin Newsom preferred. His campaign spent over $1 million on statewide ads putatively attacking Trump-endorsed Republican candidate John Cox’s record on guns and has mass-texted registered voters, including voters the campaign knows are registered Republicans, about Trump’s support for Cox. Both were moves, as Newsom all but admitted himself, that were actually intended to boost turnout and support for Cox, who Newsom correctly reasoned would be an easier opponent for him to beat than Villaraigosa. On Tuesday, Cox advanced to the runoff. His presence on the ballot is a blow to Democratic House candidates who worry that Republicans will have more of a reason to show up to the polls in November, as well as Villaraigosa backers who supported a rival Republican in the hopes of dragging Cox into third place.

Newsom and Villaraigosa backers are far from the first Democrats to imagine helping Republicans amounts to shrewd and savvy politics. Don Blankenship’s loss in West Virginia’s Senate primary last month was undoubtedly a relief to the families of the 29 workers who died in his intentionally unsafe mine in 2010. One imagines the Democratic operatives who spent over a million dollars trying to assist his campaign felt differently. Claire McCaskill was proud enough of her work bringing controversial Missouri Congressman Todd Akin to victory in the state’s 2012 Republican Senate primary that she bragged about it in her memoir. “[W]e spent more money for Todd Akin in the last two weeks of the primary than he spent on his whole primary campaign,” she wrote in an excerpt published by Politico.

What often seems lost on Democratic strategists and politicians like Newsom, Villaraigosa, and McCaskill is that elections are more than contests to fill particular offices or seats. They’re opportunities for parties to organize and mobilize their activists, volunteers, and voters, promote their ideas to the public, and perhaps win over a few converts in the electorate. If you had asked an average Democrat in 2012, absent any action from the McCaskill campaign, whether it would be good for the people of Missouri broadly, and the women of Missouri specifically, for the Republican Party to nominate Todd Akin—a fanatical spreader of falsehoods about abortion and birth control—to the United States Senate, they probably would have said no, that it would actually be quite bad for the people of Missouri, especially the women of Missouri, for the Republican Party to further elevate one of the more unhinged disseminators of lies and poison about abortion and birth control, in our political discourse. They would have been right. McCaskill helped the Republican Party do just that anyway.

The Democratic Party is a gerontocracy driven primarily by careerism and convenience. The pathologies that make Feinstein’s return to the Senate a given and convince Democrats burning cash on the Republican Party’s Blankenships, Akins, and nobodies out in California are the dynamics keeping unambiguously corrupt New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez in the party’s good graces. They are the pathologies that encouraged Nancy Pelosi to resist asking John Conyers—an easily replaceable congressman representing one of safest Democratic seats in the country, a man who’d been in Congress for over a half-century—to step down for over a week after he was credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment by over half a dozen women. They are the pathologies that allow Bill Clinton to dismiss questions about his sexual misconduct with confidence that party leaders will never cast him aside. They are the pathologies that encouraged the Hillary Clinton campaign to consider, seriously and aptly, adopting “Because It’s Her Turn” as its slogan in 2016. The Democratic Party is a professional fraternity only secondarily interested in advancing the proposals in its grab bag of policy ideas—proposals that Democratic candidates are, in fact, free to oppose provided they can raise cash easily and appeal to voters who will inevitably tire of them and vote for the Republican candidates and policies they are likely to eventually prefer.

Careerism and convenience are, of course, important forces in the Republican Party as well. But the Republican Party is about to select its third speaker of the House this decade. This is churn driven largely by internal debate and dissent about how the Republican Party can best advance its particular vision for American society—how it can more deeply empower the white, wealthy, and thus worthy citizens of this country. Every Republican politician is, really, no more than an instrument for that project, and the Republican Party is not terribly particular about who they hire to fulfill it: Accused pedophiles and mad reality show hosts are welcome to apply. The majority of Republican politicians live in constant fear that they’ll be canned for someone who might be more deeply committed to the party’s vision. The vast majority of Democratic politicians do not share a similar fear, a problem given that the well-being of struggling Americans and the planet depends on the Democratic Party uniformly taking on a bold and cohesive ideological agenda. It’s only the striving opportunism of potential candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker that’s moving the party in this direction. “The days of Democrats biding our time, biting our tongue, and triangulating at the margins,” De León crowed in February, “are over.” They are not, actually. Not yet.