At a time when the Democratic base is more restive than it has been in decades, Sen. Dianne Feinstein ignited a firestorm earlier this week when she refused to back the impeachment of President Trump and instead called for “patience” over his presidency.
The statements — provocative in Democratic circles and near-heretical in her hometown of San Francisco, where she made them — reflected a moderation and pragmatism that have been hallmarks of Feinstein’s career. But these qualities, after proving politically advantageous for decades, could become an albatross because of the state’s shifting demographics and political leanings as the 84-year-old decides whether to seek a sixth term.
Potential rivals are already circling.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León lashed out at Feinstein’s remarks hours after she made them Tuesday at the Commonwealth Club, saying that women, children, people of color, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community had little time for patience in the face of the president’s policies.
On Thursday, he reiterated his disappointment in the state’s senior senator.
“It wasn’t the proper tone or tenor, especially given the current state of politics at the national level,” De León, who is termed out and rumored to be considering a Senate run, said in an interview with The Times. “We don’t owe Trump patience. We owe Californians resistance.”
De León’s words were a remarkable rebuke from a top California Democrat of one of the state’s most powerful and venerated leaders. They were also a reflection of how the political landscape in California in 2017 — in the aftermath of the election of Trump and amid simmering rage from the Democratic party’s most liberal activists — is dramatically different from the era when Feinstein gained political prominence.
She was booed at a 1990 California Democratic Party convention for flaunting her support for the death penalty. But the resulting image of a defiant Feinstein staring into a camera as her party denounced her was beamed around the state as a testament to her independence. She won her Senate seat two years later, and hasn’t faced a competitive race in two decades.
Sean Clegg, a veteran Democratic operative in San Francisco and a top advisor to Sen. Kamala Harris, said Feinstein’s Trump statements reflect a similar candor about her beliefs — even when they conflict with her audience. But her measured tones may not resonate with voters now, when the political environment is far more partisan and sharply divided than when she first joined the Senate.
“It’s Dianne being Dianne, but it’s greatly out of step with where the base is, where most Democrats are, and where most California voters are,” he said. “The base is on fire like we really have not seen in more than a generation.”
The fury is acute in California, where Democrats have positioned themselves as the liberal resistance to Trump. The state is home to some of the president’s most vocal critics: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) has been calling for Trump’s impeachment for months, and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Porter Ranch) introduced articles of impeachment on the House floor in July, accusing the president of obstructing justice. Others, such as Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), have loudly declared their opposition to many of Trump’s policies.
Feinstein has also criticized Trump’s policymaking and rhetoric, such as his pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and his comments assigning blame to “many sides” after last month’s violent neo-Nazi and white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Va.
But the comments Feinstein made about Trump on Tuesday — urging patience and saying she believed he could be a good president if he learned and changed — reinforced the notion among some liberals that Feinstein has grown out of touch with her constituents.
“No politician is entitled to their office, and what’s needed now more than ever are independent progressive leaders who will be champions for the working Californians hurt by the hateful, divisive policies of the Trump presidency,” said Joe Sanberg, a wealthy Westwood investor whose work to address poverty — he successfully pushed the state to enact income tax credits for the working poor — could be a springboard for a future run for office.
A Democratic member of the California congressional delegation, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss a colleague, said some politicians eager to seek higher office and see new faces in party leadership believe it’s time for Feinstein to “pass the torch.”
The lawmaker suggested there is particular frustration with Feinstein’s remarks about “patience” among politicians who represent districts with large minority populations. Their constituents are afraid, and they believe there is no time to waste fighting Trump, the Democrat said. “They want resistance.”
Feinstein’s top political advisor declined to comment on Feinstein’s remarks, but several supporters defended her comments and her record representing California in the Senate for a quarter century.
Longtime Feinstein confidant and former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who represented the East Bay for 12 years, moderated Tuesday’s event. Tauscher said the senator’s remarks were taken out of context, but emphasized that they also displayed the characteristics she believes have made Feinstein a powerful advocate for California in the Senate.
“She was Dianne. She’s measured. She’s serious. That’s why she has so much respect, such gravitas, such seniority that she can leverage on our behalf,” Tauscher said, adding that those qualities are particularly important right now because of the administration’s apparent disdain for California.
The senator is in a delicate position, she said. Feinstein sits on the two Senate committees — judiciary and intelligence — that are investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia. And if the House votes to impeach Trump, Feinstein, as a member of the Senate, would vote on whether to convict.
“If I was still elected, knowing that this [could] be decided by Congress through impeachment and you have to sit in judgment, to get way out on a limb and to be talking about impeachment before it’s a reality is, I think, a dangerous place to be,” Tauscher said.
Feinstein drew the ire of liberal activists even before the controversy over her comments. When protesters gathered outside her Hancock Park fundraiser in March, she held an impromptu question-and-answer session that grew heated. When one protester shouted at Feinstein to “take a stand,” the senator responded, “Young man, I’ve made more stands in my lifetime than you are old by far.”
She also faced tough questions, boos and audience members holding signs that read “Retire Feinstein” at two town halls in April, where she described her approach to dealing with Trump and the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
“Resistance to me means doing the best I can to serve people in the way we do,” Feinstein said. “I’m giving opposition in my votes, in my comments, in my speeches. Now, I don’t rant and rail because I’ve got other ways of being constructive, and I think the majority of people want me to be constructive.”
About half the state’s voters approve of Feinstein’s work, according to a March poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, though her approval rating has slipped since last year.
The recent criticism of Feinstein comes as the senator mulls whether she will seek another term in 2018.
Speculating about her intentions is a popular parlor game in California political circles, with many insiders predicting she will run. She has hedged and demurred, most recently on Tuesday when Tauscher asked Feinstein about her plans for the next five to 10 years. “Next question, please,” she responded.
Several potential successors could be waiting on her decision, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, De León and several members of Congress, including Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank, Eric Swalwell of Dublin and Sherman.
If Feinstein opts against another run, the race to replace her could be a free-for-all. But if she does decide to seek reelection, a key question is whether any prominent Democrat would try to challenge her. Some little-known Democrats have announced that they are challenging Feinstein, including defense attorney Pat Harris, who announced a bid this week staked on progressive beliefs.
Feinstein’s supporters said a challenge by a viable Democratic candidate would be an enormous mistake and ultimately unsuccessful. The senator has a storied perch in the Democratic firmament, a vast network of donors and, as one of the wealthiest members of Congress, the ability to self-fund a campaign if she faced a serious challenge.
“It would be foolish, but it would also be a waste of precious resources in a year we need to take back the House, to take the Senate, or do both,” said Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Beverly Hills.
Spillar said she believes some of the criticism of Feinstein is laced with ageism and sexism, but also said she understands the frustration and fears animating some activists. She argues that they should channel their energy into fighting Trump, trying to flip Republican-held House seats or protecting vulnerable Democratic senators rather than picking a fight with a woman who has a long history of standing by the party’s principles.
“Stop it already,” Spillar said of Feinstein’s critics. “She’s absolutely just been an incredible force and we can’t lose her, not now. Oh my God. This is not the time.”
Times staff writers John Myers in Sacramento and Christina Bellantoni in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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