California Sen. Dianne Feinstein released a statement early Monday afternoon announcing she would retire at the end of her term in 2025, when she will be 91 years old. About an hour later, when reporters on Capitol Hill asked her about this decision, she appeared unaware that the statement had gone out.
“Oh, I’m not announcing anything,” she told Raw Story. “I will one day.”
“I haven’t made that decision. I haven’t released anything,” she told other reporters. When a staffer told her that the statement had gone out, Feinstein said, “I should have known they put it out.”
The saddest part of it all is how unsurprising—if not expected—her confusion was. For most of her three decades in the chamber, Feinstein has been a force of nature in the U.S. Senate, for better or worse. In the last few years, though, as her mental sharpness has deteriorated, Feinstein has become a fixture in the background, far away from the action. She has stepped aside, or been pushed from, the positions of importance usually afforded someone of her senior stature in the chamber. She insists that she will still serve another two years.
Questions about Feinstein’s abilities first picked up in late 2018 with her management of Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual misconduct allegations against SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Feinstein, then the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, at first sat on the information provided to her about Ford, and then was pushed into releasing it to the public. Democrats felt she mishandled the situation prior to its release, while Republicans felt Feinstein lost control of the situation once word got out.
Though some of Feinstein’s colleagues may have suspected she was beginning to slow down ahead of the 2018 midterms, no one, apparently, thought the problem was bad enough to persuade her not to seek a fifth term that year. It was only after her reelection (in which she defeated Kevin De Leon, who has gone on to have his own problems) that the alarms really went off.
Ahead of the 2020 confirmation hearings for SCOTUS nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Democratic senators began actively speculating to the press that Feinstein wasn’t up to the job of managing the hearings. “She’s not sure what she’s doing,” one Democratic senator told Politico.
This would have been alarming even if the stakes weren’t a SCOTUS confirmation, but the stakes of Barrett’s nomination were as high as these kinds of stakes get. Senate Republicans, after blockading Merrick Garland’s 2016 nomination to the Supreme Court until after the presidential election, were trying to lock in a 6-to-3 conservative SCOTUS majority a few weeks before the 2020 presidential election. Democrats didn’t have the votes to block their determined Republican counterparts from fulfilling this power play. But they did have the capacity to maximize the political price Republicans paid.
Most Democrats were trying to emphasize what a 6-to-3 conservative majority would mean for at least a generation. Feinstein took a different approach.
“This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” she concluded at the end of the hearings. “It leaves one with a lot of hopes, a lot of questions and even some ideas perhaps of good bipartisan legislation we can put together.”
Bipartisan legislation? Huh? She proceeded to give the Judiciary Committee chairman, Lindsey Graham, a hug. The constitutional right to an abortion went poof about a year and a half later.
When Democrats narrowly retook the Senate in 2021, Feinstein was convinced to step aside from her position atop the Judiciary Committee. A New Yorker report around the time suggested that the Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, had to have that difficult talk with her multiple times because she “seemed to forget about the conversations soon after they talked.” A San Francisco Chronicle story from April 2022 featured numerous lawmakers who, in the Chronicle’s words, said that Feinstein “can no longer fulfill her job duties without her staff doing much of the work required to represent the nearly 40 million people of California.”
Reporters notice things, too. Ahead of a 2022 vote to fund a short-term government funding extension, something Feinstein has voted on countless times, a reporter overheard a staffer telling her, “This is a vote on the continuing resolution. Do you have any questions about it?”
“I don’t even know what that is,” Feinstein shot back at the staffer.
And forget about Feinstein serving as a committee chairman this Congress. She even had to turn down the mostly ceremonial position of Senate president pro tempore, given its status as third in line to the presidency.
This is a senator who used to make people tremble. In her earliest years in the Senate, when she was only one of a few women in the body, she muscled the (since-expired) assault weapons ban through Congress. As chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she was often a foe of progressives on surveillance matters, but she fought doggedly to expose the CIA’s torture program. She could be just as fierce in protecting California lands as she could be in reproaching children who dared support the Green New Deal.
In 2023, though, things are very different. Two House Democrats—California Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff—launched their campaigns for Feinstein’s seat even before Feinstein (or her office) made her own announcement that she would not seek reelection. Democrats gave her all the deference she needed when deciding whether to run in 2018. That would not happen again.