Dianne Feinstein has died. The senator with the least value over replacement senator given her liberal state in modern U.S. history, Feinstein might have been a groundbreaking senator in terms of gender representation, but was ultimately a pretty bad one and one that should have stepped aside many, many years ago.
Dianne Goldman was born to a wealthy Jewish family in San Francisco in 1933. Her father was a surgeon and her mother a former model. Her mother’s family had converted to the Russian Orthodox Church while still in Russia, which was not uncommon for wealthier Jews there. While Feinstein did identify as Jewish, her mother had her educated in elite and very conservative Catholic schools, where she graduated in 1951. She then went on to Stanford, graduating in 1955. She was already interested in politics, being vice-president of her class at an institution where women were barred from being student body president. She married soon after, in 1956, to a prosecutor. That lasted only three years and they had one daughter. In 1962, she married again, to a neurosurgeon in his late 40s named Bertram Feinstein and took his name, keeping it even after he died in 1978 and she married for a third time some years later.
Always interested in public affairs, Feinstein started her career as a fellow for the Coro Foundation in San Francisco, which trains young people in public affairs. She got to know Pat Brown, who in 1960 named her to the California Women’s Parole Board. She was in that position for the next six years. She was seen as a rising star within California Democratic Party politics. At this time, California was still a pretty conservative state. This was the era of Nixon and Reagan after all. Despite Pat Brown’s term as governor, one did not need to be a staunch liberal to succeed as a Democrat. That was good for Feinstein because she was no staunch liberal. Her comfort with upper-class San Francisco society fit in just fine in the 1960s, a time when San Francisco was changing rapidly and making a lot of the old-time residents nervous, angry, and scared.
In 1969, Feinstein ran for the San Francisco Board of Governors and won a seat there. That city was undergoing extremely rapid changes during these years, moving from being a very Catholic town to one that was the center of the counterculture and the gay liberation movement. Extremely ambitious, Feinstein wanted to lead that city. She ran for mayor in 1971, despite her youth and lack of experience, and lost to Joseph Alioto, who was really the last of the old-school mayors of San Francisco. In 1975, she lost the Democratic nomination to replace Alioto to George Moscone by a single percentage point. But still, she was a major force in the city’s politics. She was well-known enough that she became a target for the rather pathetic left-wing terrorists engaging in idiotic and poorly conceived bombing campaigns that were going to overthrow capitalism or something at the time. The New World Liberation Front tried to bomb her house. Being incompetent fools, the bomb failed to detonate. In any case, this got Feinstein some fame and sympathy.
In 1978, Feinstein was elected president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This placed her first in line if something happened to the mayor. Later that year, Dan White, a bitter Catholic recently resigned supervisor angry at the changes overwhelming his previously conservative religious city, shot and killed Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in American history, as well as George Moscone. Dianne Feinstein was now mayor of San Francisco. In fact, it was Feinstein who found the bodies.
Feinstein was never a liberal. She was closer to Dan White than Harvey Milk or George Moscone. In fact, she had mentored White. For Feinstein, the counterculture was the problem. Just a few days before White murdered Milk and Moscone, Jim Jones and his followers had committed mass suicide in Guyana, but that was a San Francisco-based cult. Feinstein took a lesson out of all of this—the counterculture caused problems and so did leftists. She believed that tough rule from the center—whatever the center meant at a given time—was the way to promote order. What this meant in the context of San Francisco is that she oversaw a crackdown on gay rights, partially closing the door that Milk and Moscone opened. In an interview with Ladies Home Journal, she said “It’s fine for us to live here respecting each other’s lifestyles, but it doesn’t mean imposing them on others,” language that would become classic in the anti-gay movement, when “imposing them on others” meant “being a person in public.”
Feinstein proceeded to fire the police chief who had been an ally of Milk and Moscone and replace him with an old-line Irish Catholic who declared open cop season on the gays, including wearing t-shirts that read “Free Dan White” that were visible under their uniforms. After White was convicted only of manslaughter, lesbian activists led a march through downtown that turned violent. Feinstein publicly blamed “outside agitators.” When Cruising was released in 1980, which is a terrible film, Feinstein had its showing moved outside a gay neighborhood so that they wouldn’t “riot.” When her Task Force on Equal Benefits recommended that city benefits be given to the partners of gay workers, Feinstein simply ignored them and refused to do it. I mean, she was really awful on gay rights as mayor, in a way that was not politically necessary in San Francisco. Political commenters at the time, such as a 1983 discussion of her first term by Ron Nowicki in The North American Review tended to apologize for her relations with the gay community and we should take all of this in context of the incredible homophobia of America in the 1980s. But still, in the specific context of San Francisco, Feinstein made all sorts of unforced errors on gay rights.
Feinstein was a wealthy centrist in a city sprinting to the left. She holds a significant amount of responsibility for the city’s current housing crisis, the epitome city of New Gilded Age America. She made it harder to build new housing while mayor, and was a big supporter of downzoning, slashing the number of allowable units in many neighborhoods by up to half. Feinstein was quite close with the developer community, but her focus was on downtown redevelopment, not housing. She wanted to undermine grassroots opposition to her downtown plans by giving homeowners a big bone to gnaw on and the knowledge that a development-friendly agenda would not threaten them. It worked for her politically. It also empowered homeowners in the city to refuse nearly all new development, based around specious claims around livability covering for actual concern about property values and veiled racism. By 2015, San Francisco had a workforce of 689,000 and only 382,551 housing units. This failure of San Francisco to remain a city where people can live has many people we can blame, but right at the top of that list is Dianne Feinstein.
Feinstein engaged in the type of big ticket items that could impress nationally—helping to attract the Democratic National Convention to her city in 1984 and then rebuilding the city’s cable car system just in time that it would reopen before the convention. She served as one of Jimmy Carter’s major surrogates to resist Ted Kennedy’s 1980 primary challenge. She was considered a frontrunner for the 1984 VP slot, but Walter Mondale went with Geraldine Ferraro instead. Amazingly, he managed to pick an even worse Democrat than Feinstein. When she proposed to ban handguns in the city, the White Panther Party attempted to recall her, but she won the recall election and served her two full terms that ended at the beginning of 1988. She was most certainly a strong mayor, if nothing else.
Wanting higher office, Feinstein became the Democratic nominee for governor in 1990, but lost to the vile Pete Wilson. But Wilson had resigned from the Senate to take that role, opening a slot there. Feinstein defeated Gray Davis for the primary to replace him and then won the general. She would be reelected a mere 5 times. In 1994, she had a real challenge from the Republican Michael Huffington for her full first term, but then defeated him 47-45. She never again faced a serious challenger. When she ran for Senate, she consciously used the fact that the Senate was such a male-dominated institution to urge Californians to vote for her to help fix that. At the time, there were only two women in the Senate. Feinstein’s slogan on this was “Two percent may be good enough for milk, but it is not good enough for the U.S. Senate.” That’s good sloganeering right there.
Feinstein started her Senate career has a huge “war on crime Democrat,” supporting the death penalty. She and Arizona Republican Jon Kyl allied to argue for a constitutional amendment to protect “victims’ rights,” one of the least appealing positions of late twentieth century politics, which used the same type of fearmongering deployed to destroy Michael Dukakis’ presidential ambitions by tying him to a freed criminal to committed murder to effectively paint those who opposed this position as lacking sympathy for victims. Even her opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s came out of a law-and-order position of fearing that Mexican drug traffickers would be able to traipse across the border to move their goods, as if that hadn’t happened all through the 1980s already. In later years, even she had to recognize the world had changed and she moved away from that position, as well as being OK with decriminalizing marijuana. That said, she did take the lead on the assault weapons ban that passed in 1994, of all difficult years for Democrats to take on a measure, a rare defeat for the National Rifle Association and something that lasted for ten years. She does deserve credit for this.
Feinstein was a huge supporter of the National Security Agency, even at the height of its failings in the Iraq War, while immediately calling Edward Snowden a “traitor.” Moreover, her governance seems to have consistently revolved around things that personally impacted her, with little larger vision. A 2014 Guardian editorial about her criticizing the CIA really nailed this tendency she had:
“The exasperation with Ms Feinstein is that she directs her sense of outrage only at the CIA. It seems restricted to issues that impact on her. She is outraged when the CIA allegedly hacked into her committee’s computers. She is upset over the alleged intrusion into the privacy of her own staff. And yet this is the same senator who could not empathise with Americans upset at the revelations in the Snowden documents of millions of citizens whose personal data has been accessed by the NSA. It is the same senator who could not share American anger over the revelation of the co-operation in surveillance of the giant tech companies, whether wittingly or unwittingly.”
When it didn’t matter, she was all about the CIA. She was on board naming Michael Mukasey as Attorney General during the later years of the Bush administration, just side stepping the slight torture issue. She wasn’t entirely horrible on these issues. Again, it just depended on how much something particularly concerned her. She was outraged when discovering about the CIA’s black sites for torture after 9/11; the torture report Congress put together in 2009 was largely her doing. Doing so infuriated not only the CIA, which considered her a traitor top the nation to even ask these questions, but also the Obama administration. She was a huge supporter of a nuclear agreement with Iran and was one of the only powerful politicians in the nation to call out Benjamin Netanyahu publicly when he sought to defeat it. Again, credit where credit is due.
Feinstein was fundamentally a rich centrist who legislated for other rich centrists. She might “forget” to report her husband’s stock earnings. Let’s remember that not only did she personally have assets of $58 million in 2020, but her husband, Richard Blum, was listed as worth around $1 billion. Effectively, Dianne Feinstein was a billionaire. That came in part from her own personal work as a senator. Much of her husband’s wealth came from business with China. Will it shock you to know that Feinstein consistently worked to expand American business relationships with that nation? No, I don’t suppose it would. Hell, Jiang Zemin was the personal houseguest of Feinstein and Blum at Thanksgiving one year! Feinstein always claimed her finances and her politics were above the level with a sharp “firewall” between the two, but who does she think she’s kidding her? Maybe herself, actually.
When Trump came to power, Feinstein typically didn’t understand the situation. Her first public speech after the election led to her talking about how she thought she could work with Trump and how she was determined that any kind of single-payer health system should never happen. This led to the audience booing her and her advisors starting to move her toward a more realistic position for modern California coming up on her 2018 reelection campaign.
Feinstein also had a strange long-running war with the National Park Service, largely because the agency might get in the way of what her rich friends wanted to do on the California coast. For example, at Point Reyes National Seashore, there’s an oyster farm that had a lease to continue running. Environmentalists and the Park Service did not want to extend that lease in order to make the park whole. But the oyster farm made a lot of money. Feinstein used her considerable power to back up the oyster farm. Owned by a rich and highly politically connected cattle rancher who also ran cows in the preserve, it is the largest producer of oysters in California. Moreover, it’s one known to cut corners and serve unhealthy oysters that made people sick. Didn’t matter. Feinstein was all in for this continued development.
It’s not as if Feinstein was responsive to environmentalism anyway. As Bill McKibben reported, when a group of Green New Deal activists confronted the aging senator in 2019, her outrage was that these kids would think they had the right anything to say to her. She replied to them, “You know what’s interesting about this group? I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I know what I’m doing. You come in here and you say, ‘It has to be my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that. I’ve gotten elected, I just ran, I was elected by almost a million-vote plurality. “And I know what I’m doing. So, you know, maybe people should listen a little bit.” Of course, Feinstein is going to be dead as the people of California and the world deal with the climate change that she cared a lot less about then some kids not being respectful enough to her. This really summed up how Feinstein saw her constituents. When the activists were confronting her, this conversation took place:
Kid: “I hear what you’re saying, but we’re the people who voted for you.” Feinstein: “How old are you?” Kid: “I’m sixteen, I can’t vote.” Feinstein: “Well, you didn’t vote for me.”
Wow, thanks Dianne! You can certainly criticize “only Dems have agency” politics and maybe this New Republic headline reading “Dianne Feinstein is a Bigger Climate Threat than Trump” is over the top hyperbole. But you can’t question that moderate Democrats such as Feinstein simply have never understood just how important this issue is because they aren’t going to have to live through the consequences of it.
In 2018, with Progressives rising in the Democratic Party, Feinstein should have been eased aside. Kevin de Leon was a decent candidate (or so it seemed at the time) but just could not gain traction or funding. No one in Washington or Sacramento wanted him to take on Feinstein, even though she was clearly well to the right of her voters and in declining mental health. De Leon wasn’t a no one, as the head of the Democrats for four years in the state senate, a fighter on immigration rights and a bilingual person. But forget about it. It was Dianne Feinstein. Despite her demonstratively poor performance as a Democratic senator, the money liked her, the San Francisco liberals liked her, and whatever Republicans were going to show up for an all-Democratic special election certainly preferred her, though some undoubtedly voted for De Leon just because they didn’t know who he was.
Over the years, the reasons for Feinstein to stay in the Senate became less and less defensible. It was one thing to be a moderate mayor in a liberal city. It’s another to be on the right-edge of the Democratic caucus in the years when the Republican Party had become fascist. Her late career actions were terrible, especially her role as the minority leader on the Judiciary Committee when Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to the Supreme Court by Donald Trump and Feinstein acted like it was 1993 all over again and politics hadn’t changed. Feinstein effectively endorsing Barrett early on gave her tons of space, making any chance of stopping her confirmation impossible. Hell, she gave Lindsey Graham a hug at the end of the hearings! Talk about being out of touch. Public support for Barrett rose during her confirmation hearing, in no small part because Feinstein made her seem respectable instead of the hard-right ideologue she in fact remains today. Moreover, when Schumer tried to talk to her about all of this, she would listen and then immediately forget what he said, the classic sign of dementia. In fact, Feinstein had been awful on judges for years when Trump took over, basically seeing her role as confirming anyone brought up because of bipartisanship and the traditions of the institutions while Trump and McConnell ensured that fascism would rain down on America through the judicial system. Heck, they counted on Feinstein being clueless about what they were doing, not that they bothered to hide it. They didn’t have to! She also effectively endorsed Susan Collins’ reelection as early as 2019, talking about how great she was and how much she hoped they could keep working together in the future. She openly stated that she was “conflicted” about the need for Democrats to retake the Senate if it cost people such as Collins their positions. Thanks Dianne!
By the time McConnell took a dump in the mouth of anyone who thought he cared one whit about consistency and hypocrisy after the last minute nomination of Barrett, even Senate Democrats had enough and forced her to give up her chairmanship when they retook the majority in 2021. Her clear mental decline led to a widespread belief she was suffering from a fairly advanced dementia that included not remembering things just told to her, the classic symptom. Moreover, her later years were dominated by her typical bad behavior—she was noted for being pretty mean to staffers and she demanded to see every piece of legislation she voted on—combined with her inability to tell what was going on with anything she did. This is sad really; dementia is horrible, as most of us know from someone in our lives. But that also means that she should have been nowhere near the Senate, and saying that Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd hung on until they were beyond having a functioning mind is no excuse. But she remained cogent enough to give a full-throated defense of Stephen Breyer refusing to retire from the Supreme Court, despite him also being 700 years old, because the no one should tell the olds what to do. Amazingly, she continued to go ahead with the idea of never retiring, filing paperwork in January 2021 for her 2024 reelection run when she would be a mere 91 years old.
The fundamental problem with Dianne Feinstein isn’t that she was a horrible person, certainly not compared to the fascists that have dominated the Republican Party in recent years. The problem is that literally any Democratic politician in California would have made a better senator. And yet, because of her tenure and state power, she never even faced a real challenge or realized that she needed to govern better. Dianne Feinstein is unquestionably at the bottom of the Wins Above Replacement Senator statistic (if we may borrow from modern baseball statistics). By this, I mean what one can expect from a senator given the politics of the state. Jon Tester, for example, far surpasses his WARS, as he is a consistent moderate in a far-right state. Dianne Feinstein is the converse, a pointless moderate in a state that should be electing leading liberals. So it’s not as if I am sitting here celebrating Dianne Feinstein’s demise. I just wish she had left the Senate a long time ago. Who can tell what the future holds, but it feels highly unlikely that historians will see her as anything more than a mediocre and semi-corrupt politician.
 Perlstein, Reaganland
 Jon Kyl, Dianne Feintsein, and Larry Yackle, “Victims’ Rights: Do We Need a Constitutional Amendment to Ensure Fair Treatment” ABA Journal, October 1996, 82-83.