Op-Ed: Barbara Boxer is about to be replaced in Washington — will it matter?

Barbara Boxer
Retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., center, at a canvassing site to train and organize supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Oct. 29.
(John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Here’s one election day storyline that won’t garner the attention it deserves: No matter what else happens Tuesday, for the first time in American history, one elected woman will be tapped to replace another in the U.S. Senate, just the way it’s been happening for men since the Republic began.

California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris likely will replace the retiring incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer. And if Harris doesn’t win the seat, it will go to Rep. Loretta Sanchez, her opponent, another Democrat, who finished second in the state’s top-two primary in June.

In 1992, when Boxer was first elected to the Senate, gender was all the rage. Boxer’s victory, coinciding with that of Dianne Feinstein’s here in the Golden State and two other Democrats in Illinois and Washington, was lauded as the Year of the Woman.

Sending four women at once to the Senate is nothing compared to the possibilities in 2016.  Hillary Clinton is on the verge of cracking the ultimate political ceiling, and 15 women are on Senate ballots nationwide.  Let’s not forget that one of them, Misty K. Snow, a Utah grocery clerk, is seeking to become the nation’s first transgender senator.


Yet no one is calling 2016 the Year of the Woman II.

Boxer (and Dianne Feinstein) won elections with such frequency and ease that they killed the novelty of women holding office — in California, at least.

The lack of the label may have something to do with  Boxer’s curious legacy. Her fans would have you believe she’s been a Senate workhorse when in fact she’s been a show horse — remembered for moments like dressing down a general who called her “ma’am,” but not for building consensus or solving problems. 

Soon after Boxer announced her retirement, the liberal nonprofit Truthout came up with a list of her top Senate accomplishments: funding for after-school programs, pushing for climate change action, stopping bank bailouts, confronting the military on sexual assault.


But the same ode to the senator’s good work included this curious line: “So many of Boxer’s victories are smaller efforts that benefit people in ways they don’t even realize.” Another way to read that:  She wasn’t really in the mix on the big stuff, and certainly not as much as Feinstein, who’s been at the center of the storm over issues such as gun control and National Security Agency snooping. Had Boxer’s tenure been more consequential, perhaps her departure would draw more attention to her would-be successors.

Boxer’s example raises a question for the next female senator from California: Does she want to be the next Boxer in style and temperament, or a freshman version of Feinstein, who may or may not step down in 2018? Will she pursue gravitas or great press? Will she sign up for Senate committees that confer a knowledge of how government works, or simply show up for Sunday talk shows and party dinners? All of this is especially pertinent for Harris, whom national reporters already want to see as the next coming of Barack Obama. 

A second reason perhaps why the media didn’t go on a gender bender in this campaign: Clinton wanted it this way.

Yes, a feminine pronoun (“I’m With Her”) is a campaign slogan.  And Clinton has promised to appoint women to at least half of her Cabinet slots. Otherwise, she has eschewed the historic nature of her run, just as Barack Obama stayed away from a race-driven narrative in 2008. But for a different reason: Obama didn’t want to stoke ethnic fear and resentment. Clinton hasn’t been able to figure out which persona she wants to sell: warrior princess for the nation’s downtrodden, hip granny dancing with Ellen; an Americanized Angela Merkel — her people’s mutter.

Maybe it’s a good sign that the woman-to-woman Senate handoff is going relatively unnoticed (in fact, it could also happen in New Hampshire, if the Democratic challenger evicts the GOP incumbent).  We’re now so used to seeing female senators on Capitol Hill, especially from California, we just don’t recognize such things as “milestones” anymore.

Twenty women serve in the U.S. Senate. When Boxer and Feinstein joined the chamber, the total rose to six (we’ve had 46 women total in the U.S. Senate).  A woman was one-half of the national GOP ticket in 2008 and now the Democratic ticket in 2016. On TV, a woman already has had the top job — what I wouldn’t pay to see the fictional “Veep” President Selina Meyer  (“I’m used to dealing with angry, aggressive, dysfunctional men – i.e., men”)  debate Donald Trump.

In fact, this could be Boxer’s most enduring legacy: She (and Feinstein) kept winning elections with such frequency and ease that they killed the novelty of women holding office — in California, at least.


Before Boxer and Feinstein took office, California U.S. Senate races were more competitive. Boxer has served four six-year terms. So did her predecessor, Alan Cranston, but she won reelection by at least 10%; he had to fight to keep the job. Feinstein so far has served 24 years; five different senators occupied her seat in the previous 24 years. 

In a year in which Clinton and Trump have accused each other of criminality, it may be Harris who will pull off a heist. Her victory wouldn’t be felonious, but as a Democratic senator from the deeply blue state of California it could get her 25 years to life in Washington, even if she chooses to do little in the way of heavy lifting.

That California doesn’t better appreciate what a difference that makes is the real crime. 

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow, columnist for the Sacramento Bee and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson.

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