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Learning to let go
Democratic leaders have a death grip
Welcome to a Saturday morning edition of Progress Report.
I spent much of this week focused on what will almost certainly be the two big labor stories of the summer.
Hollywood is facing down its biggest labor battle in generations as studios reckon with a decade of foolish investments, exploitative contracts, and new tech. Actors are now voting on a strike authorization, and many are gung ho from spending time with TV and film writers on the picket lines. On Monday, I went with Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost as he marched with members in front of an executive-filled Radio City Music Hall. You can check out my piece with Rep. Frost right here.
I’m also deep into covering the negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters, who are very ready to take 350,000 workers on strike should they not reach an agreement on a much-improved contract by the end of July. I’ll have the first video report on that for you this coming week.
Today, I want to talk about a scandal happening in Washington, what it means for the future of democracy, and why it’s so emblematic of the problems plaguing the Democratic Party.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein reminds me a lot of my late grandmother, who was about the age that Feinstein is now when she passed away in 2018.
They were both born to Russian-Jewish immigrants. They were both smart and ambitious and born in an era hostile to both of those traits in women. And they’ve been robbed of the dignified last act that they’d long imagined for themselves.
I wouldn’t describe my grandma as having been particularly warm; determined, stubborn, and ferociously proud would be more apt. From what I can tell, the same can largely be said about Sen. Feinstein, because that’s often what it took for women of their generation to achieve their goals. My grandmother never ran for office, but after growing up poor in Brooklyn, she was earned her Ph.D. in education by taking evening classes while working and raising kids. She worked as a reading specialist, and believed so deeply in the importance of the work that when her grandkids came to visit, they were greeted with school workbooks instead of homebaked cookies.
The same intelligence, determination, and pride that helped her to navigate a patriarchal society and overcome so many obstacles during her unlikely ascent would also make her decline into dementia an inescapable nightmare. After watching her own mother die of Alzheimer’s, my grandma decided that suffering a humiliating decline into senility, or even just not being the smartest and sharpest person in the room, was not an option for her. She retained that stance even as a fog of time and genetics began to convince her that I was my uncle and that she had to go to work the next day.
It’s easier for people with dementia to get sick, particularly with infections, and the illnesses often compound in someone that’s become immobile and confused. My grandma was no exception, and though she dreaded the idea and fought it as best she could for several years, her mental decline and long list of ailments ultimately made a nursing home’s “reminiscence” unit the safest and best place for her. It was a hard decision that felt like a betrayal, but it was the least bad option, which is sometimes the best you can hope to find.
I don’t know Dianne Feinstein personally and I’m obviously not a healthcare professional, but it doesn’t take an advanced degree or years of training to recognize that an 89-year-old who walks around in a perpetual haze and is still on the mend from shingles, Ramsay Hunt syndrome, and encephalitis should not be serving in US Senate. It’s no surprise that Feinstein believes otherwise, but she also sometimes believes that she’s still the mayor of San Francisco
Anyone that truly had Sen. Feinstein’s best interests at heart would recognize that her stubbornness is no longer indicative of her competence, and that wheeling her crippled body around the halls of the Senate and forcing her to withstand questions from reporters constitutes elder abuse. Unfortunately, Democratic Party leaders seem to not have her best interests at heart.
For Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin, Sen. Feinstein’s condition and unpredictable schedule have been the gifts that keep on giving.
First, her three-month absence provided Durbin the perfect excuse to eschew calls for a full investigation into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s outrageously corrupt relationship with billionaire Harlan Crow. When Feinstein’s out, Democrats don’t have the majority on the committee necessary to issue a subpoena and compel Thomas to testify under oath about the breathtaking number of gifts and payments that he’s received from a guy who collects Nazi memorabilia and often has cases before the Supreme Court.
Her absences also make it harder for Democrats to confirm liberal federal court nominees, though Durbin didn’t seem all that bothered by that handicap, either. He could have counteracted it to a degree by ending the archaic “blue slip” system that allows Republicans to block nominees from their home states for no particular reason; instead, he sat on his hands and dawdled until a CNN story drew attention to the stagnant backlog of nominees.
Once the public began paying attention, Durbin was adamant that Feinstein be allowed to exit on her own terms, and he promised time and again that she’d return to DC soon enough, even as nobody in the Senate had heard from her in ages.
After Feinstein made a surprise return to DC this earlier this week, Durbin simply dropped the pretense that her absence was what stood in the way of launching a serious investigation into Thomas’s laundry list of ethical violations.
During the hearing on judicial ethics that all the unethical people blew off, Durbin said that his goal was to “rescue the reputation” of the Supreme Court, seemingly blissfully unaware that the court has already fully wrecked its credibility with the public.
The man has become a human punching bag, wobbling along after Thomas and Crow outright rejected his inquiries and Chief Justice John Roberts made a mockery of Durbin’s toothless appeals to character and historic legacy. Durbin knows that further investigating the prolific bribery at the highest level of government would likely bring the entire enterprise down, and he is so devoted to upholding old institutions that he’s willing to let democracy itself take the fall.
At one point, Durbin had one of Feinstein’s staffers ask the Senate that she be temporarily replaced on the Judiciary Committee, a request that was swiftly rejected by Republicans, just like Democratic leaders like it. Had Feinstein been replaced on the Judiciary Committee, Durbin could have been stuck with another one of those pesky Democrats who want him to actually do his job instead of running interference for the right-wing crooks that are dismantling a century’s worth of progress. Instead, he knows that Feinstein won’t say a word about it, in part because she hardly speaks at all.
Political Agendas at Work
Nancy Pelosi has been even more adamant that Feinstein be given the chance to choose her own retirement date. When calls for the senator’s resignation began to grow louder in April, Pelosi threw a bomb into the conversation by essentially painting the people who wanted Feinstein to step down as sexist. It was a cynical ploy, as Pelosi knowing that many good liberals would pipe down despite the preponderance of evidence that Feinstein’s age and mental state, not gender, made her unfit to represent 40 million people in the Senate.
“I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate,” Pelosi told reporters. “I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Senator Feinstein in that way.”
Just over a month later, Pelosi’s own political agenda has come into focus: She wants her centrist friend Rep. Adam Schiff to succeed Feinstein in the Senate, and his chances of doing so would be greatly diminished if Feinstein resigned and Gov. Gavin Newsom kept his word and appointed a Black woman, such as Rep. Barbara Lee, to take her place.
That revelation goes a long way to explain why Pelosi’s daughter, Nancy Corinne Prowda, has been at Feinstein’s side throughout her return to Washington, serving as a sort of bodyguard and assistant. Prowda bats away questions from reporters and blocks prying eyes from assessing Feinstein’s condition. The assignment could not be more obvious.
The desperate fight to Weekend at Bernie’s a sickly 89-year-old dementia patient for another 18 months is a perfect encapsulation of a broader and even more urgent problem. The Democratic Party is run almost entirely by octagenarians who refuse to relinquish their grip on power, no matter how much damage they’re causing.
The Politics of Power
Products of a DC that has not existed for decades, leaders like Pelosi, Durbin, Janet Yellen, Merrick Garland, and the version of Joe Biden that’s been reemerging this year are simply not equipped for our new era of political warfare. Deals may get hammered out from time to time in Washington, but sociopolitical detente is no longer possible.
The New Democrats made their rejection of New Deal populism a key part of their identity, and after Reagan, offered their incrementalism as a selling point. Even when they had popular ideas, they always found a way to impose limits on what they could accomplish for people. The tradition lives on to this day, and the debt ceiling debacle is a perfect example of this dynamic in action.
The White House could invoke the 14th amendment, which essentially declares the debt ceiling unconstitutional and dares the Supreme Court to invent a reason to send the country into default. Instead, the president and his advisors have all but preemptively surrendered an unnecessary negotiation with some of the most widely loathed Republicans in the country. Whether it’s through onerous and pointless work requirements on Medicaid and food stamps or cuts to some other essential program, people are going to bear the brunt of it, as is always the case.
Republicans, on the other hand, know how to use power and do so without fretting for a second about potential momentary blowback from a DC media that exists in its own irrelevant bubble. Naturally, as Durbin wrings his hands over improving public perception of a rogue and dangerous Supreme Court, Republican state lawmakers are using and abusing every edge they can find in order to continue their attacks on civil rights, social progress, and democracy itself.
The new generation of Republican leaders is uncompromising, deranged, and will not rest until they’ve swallowed the country whole.
On Saturday, Republicans in Texas will vote on a package of voter suppression bills, including one that will authorize the state to seize control of election administration in the state’s biggest and bluest county.
In Florida, Ron DeSantis just signed four anti-LGBTQ+ bills, including a ban on transgender care and drag shows, on the campus of New College, the off-beat liberal arts school that he’s trying to turn into a den of far-right hate ideology.
And earlier this week, Nebraska Republicans explicitly blew off legislative chamber rules this week so that they could pass a bill that bans abortion after 12 weeks and prevents minors from receiving transgender care.
The list is ugly and interminable — just read a few recent issues of this newsletter and you’ll be overwhelmed by the volume and perniciousness of the human rights violations that are being signed into law this spring.
Democrats have trained supporters to believe nothing can be done about the terrors that Republicans inflict on people, as if legislative technicalities and traditions render their control of the White House, Senate, federal agencies, most government spending, and the public agenda moot. They’re trying to do the same thing with Dianne Feinstein, using her grievously ill condition as an excuse to avoid responsibility and deceiving the public in order to manipulate primary elections.
I was never a huge fan of Sen. Feinstein’s politics, but that no longer really matters, because she’s simply a vessel for critical party-line votes. That does her a disservice, and I know that were a more cognizant Dianne Feinstein offered a window into the future, she would be horrified and humiliated by the sad, enfeebled figure being wheeled around the Senate right now. Taking advantage of her ingrained pride and inability to truly understand her condition should be an inflection point. Democrats should let the poor woman rest, and many of the party’s longest-tenured leaders should recognize that it’s time for them to do so as well.
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