It’s an easy call: Sen. Feinstein

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is seen taking the stage during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein is seen taking the stage during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

When a public official has been in office as long as Dianne Feinstein has served in the U.S. Senate, voters understandably wonder whether it shouldn’t be someone else’s turn. But change for the sake of change is seldom a compelling argument for unseating an incumbent, and it’s especially unpersuasive in this year’s election.

Feinstein, a California Democrat who first joined the Senate after winning a special election in 1992, may be an entrenched incumbent, but she’s also an effective one. Her Republican opponent, Elizabeth Emken, a former lobbyist for autistic children with a background in business, is earnest but untested, and her grasp of the issues is underwhelming.

Over the years, Feinstein has brought a deliberate and detail-minded approach to her duties. Although she at times has disappointed her party’s liberal base — notably with her vote in favor of the war in Iraq — she has compiled a generally progressive voting record. She voted for healthcare reform, is a leader in the effort to reenact a lapsed ban on assault weapons and has proposed repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.


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She has been a key participant — and a thoughtful, rational one — in efforts to reform the country’s broken immigration system. Her focus has been on ensuring an adequate labor supply for California farmers, proposing a pilot program under which undocumented farm workers could continue working in this country legally if they pay a fine, meet their tax obligations, have clean criminal records and commit to working in U.S. agriculture for five years. That so-called AgJOBS legislation would be a down payment on a comprehensive bill that would recognize the importance of immigrants’ labor and the moral imperative of bringing them out of the shadows.

As chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein has worked cooperatively with the Obama administration and, when possible, with Republicans. She presided over an ambitious investigation of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” whose results are expected to be released to the public. Though generally supportive of anti-terrorism measures adopted after 9/11, she also has introduced legislation to make it clear that U.S. citizens and permanent residents arrested in this country may not be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Emken’s agenda consists of Republican boilerplate, including opposition to Obamacare, to “amnesty” for illegal immigrants and to higher taxes on wealthy Americans. She opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. On foreign policy, Emken is basically a blank slate, though here too she has recycled GOP talking points, such as the notion that President Obama is insufficiently pro-Israel.

Feinstein’s age — she turned 79 in June and would be 85 at the end of another term — serves as a subtext for her challenger’s campaign. When Republican voters in Indiana refused to renominate 80-year-old Sen. Richard Lugar, Emken (who is 49) said that “Lugar, just like Sen. Feinstein, stayed too long, lived too far away and made too many bad choices to deserve another six years in Washington.” But Feinstein insists that she is in good health, and we have been impressed during this campaign not just by her energy but by her mastery of even the smallest details of complicated policy issues.

This page has had its disagreements with Feinstein. We criticized her attempt to have Congress override state decisions on water allocation, and we question her advocacy of legislation that would make it harder for reporters to interview government officials about national security issues. We have also been critical of her refusal to debate Emken, which only reinforces her image as a detached incumbent out of touch with the people she serves. But she has been a diligent defender of California’s interests and a constructive voice in the Senate. Especially given the alternative, endorsing her for another term is an easy call.