The announcement follows months of chatter — some of it mean-spirited, some of it less so — about whether, at age 84, Feinstein is too old to run again. (If she won, her term would extend past her 91st birthday.) She’s been called an old-school centrist who is out of touch with California progressives and out of sync with the state’s anti-Donald Trump front. She’s been urged by political commentators and some voters to retire to make way for a younger candidate. On The Times’ op-ed page, for example, political commentator Harold Meyerson said Feinstein was doing herself “no favors” by running for a fifth six-year term. “Best to call it a day,” he advised.
But why shouldn’t Feinstein run? She has as much right to run a campaign as anyone else — and more than many. She’s got experience, savvy and a deep understanding of how Washington works. To our knowledge, she’s still competent to do her job, and if she’s not, that’ll come out in the campaign, won’t it? Ultimately, that’s the most important point: If voters don’t think she’s up to the task of representing California in the Senate based on what they see and hear during the months ahead, they can vote for someone else. That’s democracy, and it usually works.
Of course, other Democrats have every right to challenge her. They shouldn’t stand aside out of deference to Feinstein. No one is entitled to an elected seat, not even a distinguished incumbent with a quarter-century of experience and accomplishment there. California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who is termed out next year, is rumored to be interested, as is billionaire Tom Steyer, who briefly considered running for Senate when Barbara Boxer retired. Both have the funds to launch credible challenges to Feinstein, as do others, no doubt.
But they should make sure they have more to offer than just a fresh face and “new blood.” Unlike Hollywood, which is always looking for the next buzzed-about young thing, the Senate values longevity — the fate of legislation often rests on the relationships built by its members. Besides, California already has a fresh face in Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, the former state attorney general who was elected less than a year ago.
So let the challenges begin, though hopefully the question of age won’t come to dominate this race. Feinstein may be the oldest senator currently serving, but not by much. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is just a few months younger, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) will be 84 in March. And she’s a spring chicken next to former Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who was 100 and notably frail when he retired from office.
Given the long history in Congress of men serving into their 80s and beyond, one can’t help but wonder if the harsh age-related criticism that has been leveled at Feinstein is another example of the double standard to which women in leadership positions are often held. Because no one who watched Feinstein in a “Face the Nation” interview this weekend speaking informatively about her proposed ban on bump stocks, Trump’s challenge to the Iran nuclear deal and the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, among other topics, could credibly suggest she’s in any way feeble.
A birthdate alone can’t tell you much about a person. Nor is it a good guide for gauging fitness for public office. There are enough examples of stodgy young people and innovative senior citizens to throw the tired ageist tropes out the window. People of all ages drop dead every day. What matters are the qualities, ideas and energy that a candidate brings to the race and whether they are the same ones that voters want.