California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s age has become an increasingly unavoidable part of her biography.
“At age 84, Dianne Feinstein is the oldest of the 100 United States senators,” Los Angeles Times columnist Harold Meyerson began a July op-ed that argued she shouldn’t run for re-election. A December Washington Post article also highlighted that Feinstein is the oldest member of “the oldest Senate ever.” Saturday Night Live even featured the veteran Democratic lawmaker – or rather, an impersonation of her – in a November skit mocking Democrats’ bid to repackage their aging leaders as fresh new faces.
Now, as she gears up for a race that would keep her in office until the age of 91, Feinstein’s biggest challenge may be to prove to voters that she hasn’t lost a step – or lost touch with Californians’ values.
Feinstein’s main challenger, state Senate President Kevin de León, and his allies are trying their best to sow doubts about the latter, while insisting they are not going after the senator’s age. It requires walking a tricky rhetorical tightrope.
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Even as the average age in Congress ticks upward, widening the generational gap with the American public, the issue of age in politics remains mostly taboo. Just ask Kelli Ward, the Arizona Tea Party candidate who faced a fierce backlash for calling Republican Sen. John McCain “weak” and “old” during their 2016 primary race.
Last year, Meyerson was one of several political commentators who ventured to call for Feinstein’s retirement, citing her age. It’s not just a question of physical health, they argued, but whether the veteran Democrat, whose conciliatory comments about Trump last August drew the ire of progressives, is still in touch with the state and its voters.
“Given her amply evident competence, the idea that Feinstein shouldn’t seek re-election because of her age is offensive,” the San Diego Union-Tribune opined a day after Feinstein announced her re-election bid on Oct. 9.
Polling, however, shows California voters have some doubts. In a September 2017 poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, less than half of likely voters said Feinstein should run again. A poll from the University of California, Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies last spring found that highlighting the senator’s age caused a drop in support for her re-election.
The Los Angeles Democrat has made the generational difference between himself and Feinstein a central plank of his long-shot challenge. Because of the state’s top-two primary system, where the top two finishers advance to the general election, de León is poised to be Feinstein’s opponent next November.
His remarks at his campaign launch in mid-October were laced with implicit digs at Feinstein’s 25-year tenure in Congress. California is “the greatest beacon of opportunity the world has ever known, but we didn’t get here through years of political seniority, we built it with acts of audacity,” he declared.
De León and his supporters say Feinstein’s age, itself, is not the issue.
“A Progressive California is supporting Kevin de León for U.S. Senate because he has been a powerful voice on issues from environmental protection to immigrant rights to health care for all,” said Mac Zilber, a strategist for the pro-de León Super PAC, A Progressive California. “We have no plans to make age an issue in this race.”
Liberal blogger and de León backer Markos Moulitsas said, “If there’s any quote-unquote age gap, it is that the California (Feinstein) thinks she represents no longer exists.”
The Golden State, Moulitsas said, is “at the vanguard of the progressive movement,” but the moderate, consensus-building Feinstein “is utterly divorced from that.”
It’s not that easy, however, to separate Feinstein’s age from the critiques of her long tenure in office, said University of California, San Diego, political science professor Thad Kousser. The fact that Feinstein is in her 80s feeds into the entire narrative of the race, which pits experience and wisdom against a new voice and fresh approach, he said.
De León, then, doesn’t need to talk directly about Feinstein’s age. “She’s had such a long career that you don’t need to make the point,” explained Kousser, an expert on California politics. “You just need to say, ‘I’m going to bring a new voice, an energetic voice to Washington, D.C.’ ”
Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s political strategist, agreed that Californians are “well aware” of Feinstein’s age, but doesn’t think it hurts her. She does particularly well among the state’s Democrats in recent polling, Carrick noted, a sign voters prefer familiarity over someone “they’ve never heard of.”
Still, Jennifer Duffy, the Senate race analyst for the Cook Political Report, thinks Feinstein will need to reassure voters her age won’t be an impediment to her work in Washington. “She’s going to have to prove she’s got the stamina,” Duffy said.
Feinstein’s supporters say it’s clear she does. “I’ve worked with Sen. Feinstein ... in the last year,” said Democratic strategist Karen Skelton. “I can tell you 100 percent she’s all there.”
The California senator has also avoided major health scares. Feinstein had a pacemaker installed in January 2017 but only missed one day of work. Prior to that, she’d missed almost no votes in three years.
In that regard, she’s fared far better than many of her octogenarian colleagues. McCain, who is 81, is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer and was recently being wheeled around the Capitol in a wheelchair, his left foot in a medical walking boot. Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran, 80, was absent from the Senate for long stretches in 2017 due to a series of health issues.
That’s prompted a round of hand wringing in Washington about the “graying” of Congress. In December, the Senate was forced to delay a vote on the tax bill due to McCain and Cochran’s absence, which The Washington Post pointed out in its article was at least the third time last year that Senate leaders had “paused action to accommodate ailing colleagues.”
The average age of Congress – and the Senate, in particular – has been rising steadily for years. It’s now 63 years old, a decade older than the Senate average in 1981 (and almost three decades older than the median age of Americans). There are now a record eight sitting senators in their 80s. Duffy said that’s partly a function of the fact Americans are living longer, healthier lives. “Eighty-four is the new 64,” she joked.
It’s also still a long way from the longevity achieved by Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who was still in the Senate when he hit 100 in 2003. West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history, died in office at 93 in 2010.
The sight of ailing male senators hobbling through the Capitol has become increasingly common in recent years, something Feinstein’s defenders point out as evidence that she and other female politicians are being held to a different standard. “You’d have men wheeled into the United States Senate not even able to walk,” says Skelton. “There were not huge cries for whether they should be replaced or not. It would have been a sign of disrespect.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has also suggested sexism is a factor in the recurring questions she gets about when she’ll give up her leadership post. Pelosi’s retort at a 2014 press conference: “What was the day that any of you said to (Senate Republican leader) Mitch McConnell … Aren’t you getting a little old, Mitch? Shouldn’t you step aside?”
It’s not that male politicians don’t get questions about their age. The issue dogged Republican presidential candidates Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bob Dole in 1996. Dole even got asked in one debate if he was “too old to be president,” echoing a Time magazine cover from that summer. He was 72 at the time.
Experts, however, say age remains a tougher issue for female politicians to overcome. Kathleen Hall Jamieson wrote a chapter about age in her seminal 1995 book on women in leadership, “Beyond the Double Bind.”
“Historically we’ve invented all sorts of assumptions about women and aging which suggest that once a woman passes her reproductive age … she no longer is able to be productive in the same way a man is, because you never assume a man has passed out of his reproducing years,” Jamieson explained. “The most insidious part of it is people are unaware that the stereotype exists, and as a result think they’re commenting on something other than age.”
In running for re-election, then, Feinstein is tackling those conventions head-on. Her campaign hopes to flip the issue of age and experience on its head, making it an asset rather than a liability.
Skelton, for one, believes it will be a winning argument. With the famously volatile Donald Trump in the White House, Skelton said, “I’ve never more valued experience, wisdom, steadiness, maturity” in political leaders.