May 23, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Feinstein is showing signs of cognitive decline. So what?

Her critics think their point has been made. It hasn’t.

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The Times revealed last week that US Senator Dianne Feinstein, the eldest member of the Congress, was much sicker than previously known during her long absence. She didn’t have just shingles. She had brain shingles.

As Lindsay Beyerstein noted Friday, in the Editorial Board, she “returned to Washington a shadow of her former self, with some observers describing her physical decline as ‘frightening.’” She added: “Feinstein’s failure to disclose the full extent of her illness is a profound breach of trust. It makes you wonder what else she’s hiding.”

The discussion about Feinstein’s health has blurred into debate over geriatrics generally, particularly the “gerontocracy” that allegedly rules the country. Critics say they aren’t being ageist. They say that the refusal to step down is rooted in arrogance, selfishness or worse.

Feinstein’s critics say that she should go for the sake of the party. But if they fully understood the consequences of what they are demanding, they’d understand that, for the sake of the party, Feinstein should stay where she is. 

Perhaps, but I want to point out something about Feinstein’s critics. They seem to be satisfied by arguments that demonstrate that she is showing clear signs of cognitive decline. They seem to believe that, by demonstrating such clear mental deterioration on Feinstein’s part, that they have adequately proven their point – that she should resign.

They haven’t, though, because they have not addressed the immediate counterargument, which is this: So what? So what if Dianne Feinstein is showing clear signs of cognitive decline? Is it preventing her from voting the way a majority of Californians want her to vote? More importantly, is cognitive decline worse than the alternative? 

I’ll get to the alternative in a moment.

The Post’s Kathleen Parker seemed to think that the rightness of her argument was self-evident. She said that Feinstein looked “weak and diminished” and that “she was in town to resume work, she said, while also saying she’d been at work all along, as though she’d never left.” 

Parker then recounted this scene: “When a reporter asked whether she meant she had been working from home, Feinstein said, ‘No, I’ve been here. I’ve been voting. Please — you either know or don’t know.’”

This is not the homerun Parker seems to think it is.

The truth of anything is determined by its consequences, and whether they are useful to the project of greatest possible human happiness. 

In the context of aging political figures, the truth of their “mental fitness” is best determined by the consequences of it. In brief, can they do what needs doing? If not, is that worse than the alternative?

The alternative is this, in part: If Feinstein resigned today, California’s governor would select a substitute until voters in that state choose a replacement next year. This is usually where arguments by Feinstein’s critics end. In their minds, she can’t serve adequately. She is showing clear signs of cognitive decline. Refusal isn’t just selfish, they say.

It undermines the goals of the party. 

But, as I said, that’s part of the alternative. The other part features the Senate Republicans and their eagerness to sabotage the Democrats. 

Feinstein’s replacement, whether appointed or elected, will not automatically sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee. That person’s committee assignments are subject to vote by the full Senate.

The Senate Republicans know that if Feinstein resigns right now, they will have an opportunity to block nominees to the federal judiciary or even to the Supreme Court. They will use the two-thirds rule – the filibuster – to prevent a replacement from taking up where she left off. 

Feinstein’s critics say that she should go for the sake of the party. But if they fully understood the consequences of their demand, they’d know that, for the sake of the party, Feinstein should stay where she is.* 

To be sure, she is showing clear signs of cognitive decline. But … so what? She has said she won’t seek reelection. Compared to the alternative, in which the Republicans paralyze the Senate Judiciary Committee, a few more months of watching Feinstein dodder along seems unimportant. Uncomfortable, yes, but relatively unimportant.

I’d expect that the counterargument to my counterargument would go something like this: Isn’t it a shame that we must choose between a senator who is showing clear signs of cognitive decline and Senate Republicans who are always already prepared for sabotage? 

To which, I say: what are the consequences of this “shameful” choice?

Preventing the Senate Republicans from sabotage? Helping an elderly senator dodder along for a few more months? All old people need help. Not all get to choose, with their vote, the next generation of jurists. 

This choice isn’t a shame. 

It’s a blessing. 

*Some argue that, if the Senate Republicans filibustered, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, Democrats who have stood by the rule, would agree to nixing it. It’s silly to hope for this. It’s better to bet on a senator who is showing clear signs of cognitive decline, but who can still vote, than on Manchin and Sinema, who might show a change of heart.

Others argue that the Republicans wouldn’t dare filibuster Feinstein’s successor, because that would threaten other rules organizing the Senate. They say Manchin and Sinema would balk. While it’s true the Republicans would be taking a risk, that risk is equal to the risk of Feinstein resigning and triggering conflict that’s otherwise avoidable.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Bob Heister on May 24, 2023 at 11:17 am

    Well-reasoned. It is what is, and you changed my mind.

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