One flaw with American elections that we write about a lot is how the two establishment parties have fashioned a system that normally gives voters just one option— choosing the lesser of two evils. It’s part of the reason why so many millions of eligible voters never bother and have dropped out of the system entirely. Even with the danger of another Trump term loomed in 2020, just 62.8% of eligible Americans voted in the presidential election. Four years earlier, in one of the most glaring lesser of two evils elections history, just 55.7% voted. When Obama ran in an historic election in 2008, it was 58.2% but when he ran for reelection it was just 54.9%. In the 1950s and 1960s, turnout for presidential elections were generally in the 60s. After Nixon’s first term, voter participation dropped precipitously, part of the reason for 8 especially terrible presidents one after the other (Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, Trump.)
Back to the evils of the lesser of two evils elections we always seem saddled with… there has been some thought that the jungle primary in California could ameliorate that to some extent and, lo and behold, the way the 2024 Senate race is shaping up appears to confirm that. Not having to worry about a shriveled, rump Republican minority, Democrats may be able to chose between really strong candidates.
First off, everyone needs to acknowledge that DiFi is unfit to serve in elective office and will certainly not be running again. A little tangent in that regard was provided by Joshua Spivak yesterday at The Hill when he wrote about the trashing of a dangerous and idiotic tradition, thanks to Feinstein’s glaring incapacity. “At the start of the new Congressional session,” he wrote, “we saw an event occur that hasn’t happened in more than 70 years. Thanks to the Republicans’ disastrous attempts to elect a speaker of the House, this historical development has been pretty much ignored. The Democrats named Patty Murray as Senate president pro temper, the third in line for the presidency after the vice president and the speaker of the House. Murray’s ascension to the mainly ceremonial role received some coverage, due to the fact that she is the first woman to occupy the job. But that was not the achievement. According to a long-standing Senate tradition, the president pro tempore is the longest-serving member of the majority party… Based on this tradition, Murray should not have been elected to the job. Instead, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who entered Congress two months before Murray due to a special election victory, should have moved into the position. There are open questions of whether Feinstein, who has been the focus of questions about her cognitive abilities, declined to run or was instead, as reports have suggested, pushed by senior Democrats who were not going to nominate her for the position.”
With Feinstein facing significant questions of her acuity, it may seem like this would be an obvious decision, but as recent history shows very clearly, this is not the case. Instead, Democrats took a much needed, and long-delayed, leap forward for Congress in trying to avoid a potential problem in a worst-case scenario situation.
In recent years, both parties have chosen president pro tempores who were very clearly incapable of performing the job of president— or any job whatsoever, really. In 2001, 99-year old Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) held the job for Republicans. At the same time that he was in line for the presidency, the Republicans effectively removed Thurmond from the role as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee because of his mental decline. The Democrats had the same event happen, as 92-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WVA) served as president pro tem in 2010, after being nudged out of his job as the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Both were removed from these positions because of a demonstrated lack of ability, but— remarkably— that didn’t take them out of the line of succession for president.
What Spivak didn’t touch on was Feinstein’s unfitness to remain as a Senator nor even her pretense about running again as she enters her 90s. Feinstein, wrote Sasha Abramsky on Friday, “will be 91 come the 2024 election. In any reasonable world, having had a more-than-distinguished career, she would now gracefully bow out and make room for the next generation— or even the one after that. She should have done so in 2018, but insisted on staying in the race, scaring off most challengers… It’s an odd situation, though. The race to replace the sitting senator is taking shape despite the fact the sitting senator hasn’t announced her retirement… Like Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd before her—the former of whom served in the Senate until six months before his death, at the age of 100 in 2003, and the latter of whom died in office at the age of 92— at least one part of the aging senator’s psyche seems to believe that eternal membership in the Senate is some sort of birthright.”
That said, Feinstein hasn’t exactly gone overboard raising funds for her reelection campaign—latest estimates are that she has a paltry $100,000 in her war chest— and the scuttlebutt is that at some point before the 2024 election she will, indeed, call it a day. That she hasn’t done so yet, however, speaks volumes to the sclerotic nature of US politics and to the flaws in a senatorial seniority system that channels an ungodly amount of power to individuals who are more than slightly overripe.
[Katie] Porter’s campaign announcement is, in this context, a breath of fresh air. Having just won a bruising reelection campaign, in a new congressional district the lines of which were thought to marginally favor the Republicans, she has the staying power to take the fight to Feinstein, should the nonagenarian senator opt to try to stay in office. Porter has shown herself to be a formidable fundraiser— for her 2022 campaign, she garnered in excess of $23 million, and within 24 hours of her Senate-bid announcement she had raised over $1.3 million. What’s more, as [Elizabeth] Warren’s backing shows, the Orange County politician is likely to rapidly rake in A-list endorsements.
Abramsky is, at best, a superficial analyst but Katie Porter is certainly not a lesser of two evils candidate. She would be a huge improvement over Feinstein and a great addition to a hidebound, sclerotic Senate. It’s worth noting that the race is not going to be between Porter and the ghost of Feinstein. While Porter has decided not to wait for Feinstein to formally announce she isn’t running again, Barbara Lee— significantly to the left of Porter politically— and Adam Schiff— significantly better known than Porter— are well into preparing campaigns. There has also been talk about Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra running.
Any of them would make a better senator than Feinstein has ever been and a better senator than the schlemiel Gavin Newsom appointed when Kamala Harris became VP, Alex Padilla. Any of them would also be a better senator than Kamala was. Feinstein, Padilla and Harris were all classic lesser evil candidates. I never voted for any of them in any elections in their careers. I would be perfectly fine voting for Katie Porter, Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff or Xavier Becerra. (Yes, Schiff has evolved significantly since his old days as a Blue Dog and, in fact, is the 117th Congress, his voting record was much further left than Porter’s… although that is not the only way to figure out who would be the best senator.) I suspect we’ll be spending a lot of time at DWT in 2023-24 writing bout who will make the best senator for California. Now I can just say, it will not be a lesser of two evils race and that all the candidates look very much better than what we are normally asked to chose between. (And, yes, Ro Khanna would make a great senator as well, but I suspect he has his mind set on a different path.)
I just got this e-mail from Schiff, worth sharing: “Republicans in Congress want to block the FBI and other law enforcement agencies from investigating domestic violent extremism because some of their extreme MAGA supporters are implicated in these investigations. MAGA rioters used the cover of more than 100 Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election to fight the Capitol Police and ransack the Capitol. The last time McCarthy had his way in the House majority, he helped create the Benghazi select committee for the express purpose of tearing down Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. Now, he’s at it again— with another partisan political exercise that will undermine our national security and democracy.”