Reports raising questions about Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) mental fitness to serve in Congress have been bubbling up on occasion for a couple years now. On Thursday, an explosive new report claimed “four U.S. senators, including three Democrats, as well as three former Feinstein staffers and [a] California Democratic member of Congress,” have said the California Senator’s memory is “rapidly deteriorating.” Per one specific anecdote, the California member in question told the San Francisco Chronicle that at a recent meeting to discuss policy with Feinstein, 88, they had to reintroduce themselves to the Senator multiple times over the course of several hours.
This week’s Chronicle report comes after a December 2020 story in the New Yorker that reported Feinstein was “seriously struggling” with memory loss, two years after she won reelection for her fifth term in the Senate in 2018.
Feinstein is currently the oldest sitting US Senator, just a few months senior to Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, who is inexplicably running for reelection this cycle. The Senate itself comprises primarily politicians well into their 70s and 80s, and just a few years ago, an anonymous pharmacist told Vox that they’re regularly filling Alzheimer’s prescriptions for members of Congress, who are often legislating over life-or-death issues.
In the context of factoids like this, it’s understandable that the numerous Democratic members of Congress—including Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)—who ardently stand by Feinstein staying in office are invoking arguments like this one reported by the Chronicle:
“Some of these people bristle at singling out Feinstein, when congressional history is filled with aging male politicians who remained in office despite their declining state.”
This all seems more like an indictment of the lack of clear, thoughtful protocol to address aging, possibly unfit political leaders than a case of (very real) sexism in politics. If Feinstein isn’t the only member of Congress remaining in office despite their allegedly “declining state,” that’s clearly an issue in itself, regardless of the gender of the politician in question.
In recent years, Feinstein has certainly made some questionable political decisions, including bizarrely scolding a group of kids and young people from the Sunrise Movement, who came to her office to call on her to take more urgent action on the climate crisis in 2019. She also drew the ire of progressive and reproductive rights groups in 2020 when she praised the confirmation hearings for now-Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and even embraced Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), leading to her stepping down as the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Still, for decades, Feinstein has been an undeniable trailblazer for women in politics, rising to power when the field was somehow even more male-dominated than it is, today. As recently as earlier this year, she and her office were instrumental in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. And we should certainly be asking more questions about someone like Grassley running for another term at age 88. Yet, if reports about Feinstein’s ability to do her job of serving 40 million Californians, and the country at large, are true, it’s not exactly a feminist victory for her to remain in office—certainly not for the millions of women, pregnant people, and other marginalized Californians who are done a disservice without proactive, thoughtful leadership.
Ableism and ageism ultimately remain serious issues, and questioning someone’s mental fitness to be in politics can walk a thin line. But in general, it probably wouldn’t hurt the Democratic Party to strategize on how to cultivate more young leadership in Congress. Within the Democratic caucus, the average House Democratic leader is nearly two decades older than their Republican counterpart, despite how the party increasingly relies on the support and mobilization of young voters.
The Chronicle’s report this week comes just months after Californians voted last September against recalling Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Ahead of the recall, there were serious concerns that if Feinstein died in office and Newsom was recalled and replaced with one of the extremist Republicans running to replace him, Feinstein’s Senate seat would then be filled by a Republican.
Likely as a result of Newsom winning the recall, there are currently no active calls for Feinstein to step down. The only way to remove a sitting U.S. Senator—beyond resignation, being voted out, or death—is through a two-thirds vote from their peers. This has happened 15 times before in the US Senate since 1789, but for reasons like corruption, treason, or, say, supporting the Confederacy—never for mental fitness.