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Opinion: Dianne Feinstein was harder on preteen climate activists than she was on Amy Coney Barrett

Sen. Dianne Feinstein
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) leaves the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Monday.
(Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call)

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) eroded political norms by refusing to hold a vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court in March of 2016, he set a precedent. The precedent was not, “A Supreme Court justice shouldn’t be appointed in the last year of a president’s term.” The precedent was, “Republicans can do whatever they want.”

That fact was made obvious by the GOP’s rush to fill the seat left empty by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death a mere 46 days before the 2020 election. The hypocrisy was clear, but that hardly mattered. Republicans control the Senate now, just as they did when President Obama nominated Garland. Few of them are likely to defect. Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s nominee to replace Ginsburg, will almost certainly be confirmed.

But did Democrats — and Sen. Dianne Feinstein in particular — really need to give in so easily?

Feinstein, California’s senior senator and the highest-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, questioned Barrett on abortion access, the Affordable Care Act and gun control during this week’s Senate hearings. But her questions weren’t particularly tough, and she didn’t say anything that invoked the single biggest issue with Barrett’s nomination: that it’s a blatant Republican power grab threatening to hopelessly politicize and destabilize the Supreme Court, and it shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

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Instead, Feinstein thanked Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey “I want you to use my words against me” Graham (R-S.C.) for his leadership during the hearing. “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in, and I want to thank you for your fairness and the opportunity of going back and forth,” she said.

There’s bipartisanship, and then there’s bringing a pillow to a gun fight. The Republican Party has gotten very good at playing constitutional hardball. If Democrats can’t or won’t match that energy, there won’t be a prize for maintaining the moral high ground. There will just be a lot of predictable political impotence.

Adding insult to injury for progressives is the fact that Feinstein can be ferocious with political opponents. She just saves it for the real threats to our democracy — like, say, 11-year-old climate activists.

A video of Feinstein speaking dismissively to a group of tweenaged Sunrise Movement activists who asked her to support the Green New Deal went viral in February 2019, and it resurfaced this week as many liberals heavily criticized the senator. The contrast between the Feinstein of the Barrett hearings and the Feinstein of the Sunrise Movement encounter is jarring.

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Compare friendly questions like “You don’t have a magic formula for how you do it and handle all the children and your job and your work and your thought process, which is obviously excellent, do you?” with curt remarks like “You come in here, and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that.” Or “I was elected by almost a million-vote plurality. And I know what I’m doing. So maybe people should listen a little bit.” Who does Feinstein seem to hold in more disdain: a judge whose nomination is an affront, or a bunch of kids who are afraid of dying in a climate apocalypse?

Of course Feinstein’s (very, very, very) long political career can’t be adequately summed up by a handful of quotes from two events. But for young progressives, it’s deeply disappointing for one of the most senior Democrats in Congress to treat the Republicans rushing Barrett’s confirmation with kid gloves — after treating young Californians concerned about climate change with open contempt.

The contrast makes it clear that Feinstein prioritizes an outdated model of bipartisanship over engaging a passionate, young, left-leaning voter base. Reaching across the aisle might once have been a noble impulse. But when the Republican Party has more or less unanimously sworn fealty to a demagogic Republican president and the entire West Coast has caught fire, it’s past time for long-serving senators like Feinstein to either adjust their sense of what’s important or step aside.


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