From the very start of the Democrat-on-Democrat race for the U.S. Senate between longtime incumbent Dianne Feinstein and state Sen. Kevin de Leon, there has really been only one issue – age.
That’s because in spite of what de Leon sometimes says, there’s very little difference between the two on policy. Both can be counted on to resist President Trump’s Supreme Court nominations and fight for continued abortion rights. Both are ardent gun control backers. Both back Obamacare, although de Leon wants to take health care a step beyond that.
The real difference between them is age. Feinstein is more than 30 years older than de Leon, the soon to be termed-out former president of the state Senate.
Almost everything de Leon has said in running against Feinstein is really about age and the patience and perspective it can bring. Sure, de Leon uses a lot of code words, like the hackneyed and overused slogan, “It’s time for a change.”
It was clear in the primary that most Democratic voters weren’t buying the age argument, which essentially goes like this: “It doesn’t matter what Feinstein does. The mere fact she’s 85 is reason enough to dump her.”
She got 70 percent of all Democratic votes in June.
But the universe of voters will be much larger in November; younger voters are more likely to turn out in general elections than primaries.
And there’s no doubt that young Turks among California Democrats feel kinship with de Leon, even though he pulled less than 13 percent of the total vote in the primary.
This was plain in the endorsement vote for de Leon by 65 percent of the more than 300 executive board members of the state’s Democratic Party. That panel is dominated by liberal leftists elected after the Bernie Sanders wing of the party turned out in droves for local caucuses soon after President Trump’s election and chose hundreds of delegates to the state party convention where board members were picked.
By contrast with the disapproval she draws from the youngish party board, Feinstein gets strong backing from the vast majority of elected state Democrats, including Gov. Jerry Brown, fellow Sen. Kamala Harris and the very vocal anti-Trump Rep. Adam Schiff of Pasadena, newly prominent for his role in opposing Trump as ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
The ageist complaints would have some merit if there were any evidence Feinstein’s performance has fallen off as she’s grown older, any reason to believe she cannot do her job as well now as ever.
But there is no such evidence. By all appearances, Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee and former chair of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, is at least as active now as 20 years ago, when no one mentioned her age.
Yes, in the early months of Trump’s presidency, she counseled patience, but it’s been clear for many months that her patience long ago ran out, as she’s made statement after statement and vote after vote to chastise or oppose Trump.
So the de Leon argument that she was somehow off base in mid-2017, when she counseled giving Trump a chance to develop and thus drew de Leon’s very vocal ire, should be rather irrelevant today.
No, Feinstein hasn’t been as shrill as Harris in questioning figures like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but her civilly-phrased questions seemed more piercing to many. And no Democrat has done more to preserve Obamacare, which provides health coverage for about 5 million previously uninsured Californians.
But she’s still known accurately as a centrist, which galls de Leon and his supporters. She’s offered compromises on water issues and won support from Central Valley farmers, but also fights for civil liberties causes. And she’s been scrupulously fair to business, which bothers some labor leaders who actively fund the party.
There’s also the fact that de Leon knows that if he doesn’t win now, he’ll probably never get a Senate seat, what with folks like Schiff, state Treasurer John Chiang and others ready to take a shot at the next slot that opens.
Which means this contest has always been about timing and the fact Feinstein has lived longer than a lot of other people, and it still is.
Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is email@example.com