Feinstein Lands On Short Lists

Posted June 3, 2003 at 6:39pm

It’s no secret that Sen. Dianne Feinstein likes being in charge. Just ask her.

“It’s true I do like the executive. I do like saying, ‘Just do it,’” said the California Democrat, who turns 70 this month and often waxes nostalgic about her nine years running the city of San Francisco.

“I remember when I was mayor, people would come in and say, ‘It’s this, this or this.’ And I’d say, ‘All right, just do this,’ and they’d argue with me. And I’d say, ‘I’ll tell you what, when you’re mayor, you do it your way. In the meantime, we’ll do it my way,’” she said in a recent interview.

But all that pining for more authority and responsibility begs the question: What are the remaining options open to an ambitious septuagenarian that will give her maximum authority before there’s pressure to retire?

After all, she’s a popular moderate female politician from the most populous state in the country whose name is mentioned for everything from governor of California to a candidate for vice president.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who is running for president, suggested he would consider Feinstein for anything from running mate to a prominent spot in his administration.

“Whatever Dianne wants to do, President Graham will assist her and look forward to serving her in any capacity,” Graham said in an interview.

Besides Graham, California Democratic Party activist Bob Mulholland asserted that Feinstein will undoubtedly be on the short list for most of the Democratic hopefuls.

“Senator Feinstein is one of the Democratic Party’s number one assets,” he said.

But many Democratic strategists say Feinstein’s options are rather limited given her age, the fact that she came to national politics later in life, and her penchant for alienating Democratic party regulars with what they consider her inconsistent support for abortion rights and other liberal causes.

“She could have been the first female president, but there’s something in her constitution that makes her too cautious,” claimed one national Democratic political consultant. “She has the ingredients to be a powerhouse. But she hasn’t been able to carve out a role in the party or inside the Senate.”

Despite the view that her prospects for becoming president or vice president appear to be fading as the years pass, Feinstein still may have one last chance to ascend the ladder to become governor of California.

Feinstein, who lost in her bid for the governorship to Republican Pete Wilson in 1990, now enjoys an enviable 56 percent job approval rating. The Senator’s name recognition in her home has also soared to 92 percent in the polls.

And rather than having to wait until 2006 for the next regularly scheduled governor’s race, California Republicans are ratcheting up their efforts to recall the 2002 election of current California Gov. Gray Davis (D). The endeavor recently got a shot in the arm from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who promised to pump millions of dollars into the signature-gathering campaign.

The unusual confluence of events could provide Feinstein with the executive office opportunity she appears to be seeking. Indeed, California Democratic activists have made her the most talked about political savior for the party, assuming the recall effort succeeds in making it onto the ballot and Davis’ approval ratings continue to plummet.

“Were there a recall, she would both clear the Democratic field and be automatically presumed the winner,” insisted one California Democratic political consultant.

Those kinds of prognostications dominate Democratic political circles in California these days, though Feinstein has publicly opposed the recall.

Still, both Feinstein and her close aides say that in general she will keep her options open for any executive-type electoral possibility that presents itself down the road, and she doesn’t seem to feel that her age is any problem when looking to the future.

“Would I? Could I someday? Sure,” said Feinstein. “But do I plan on it? At this stage, no.”

She even indicated that she gave at least a cursory look at her opportunity to run for president in 2004.

“In terms of going out there and launching a presidential campaign, it’s difficult. California is really not in the presidential race when you think about it, because the primary is late,” Feinstein explained about California’s March presidential primary, which follows the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries — areas where a Jewish California Democrat would not necessarily perform well.

Still, she denied having given any consideration to running in 2004. “But I don’t even want to talk about it, because I really haven’t thought about it,” she said.

It was almost two decades ago, in 1984, that Feinstein was first seriously considered for her party’s national ticket, when as a well-known mayor she was passed over for the vice presidential nomination in favor of former New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro.

“I was on what we called the bridesmaids list,” said Feinstein, who said she would look very carefully at any renewed offers from the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 to be his or her running mate.

But some political strategists downplay the idea of Feinstein rounding out the 2004 Democratic ticket, primarily because her popularity in California is not needed to improve the electoral outcome in a state that has been voting overwhelmingly Democratic in the past few presidential races.

Despite her continued eagerness to seek higher office, political strategists also note that Feinstein has angered liberal activists in particular with various positions she’s taken as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee on President Bush’s judicial nominations — the rawest point of contention between the two parties in the Senate.

Her support for controversial judicial nominees, such as her vote in favor of Jeffrey Sutton to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, has even caused Democratic Party activists to privately weigh whether to ask Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to remove her from the panel.

Feinstein defended her support of Sutton. “I felt he was forthright,” she said. “He was honest. He was direct in his answers. I saw a very bright man whom I believed, and believe, will be a good judge.”

But one Senate Democratic aide disagreed, charging that Sutton was “one of the most dangerous judges we could have” because of his argument before the Supreme Court that disabled state employees should not be able to sue their employers under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Feinstein has toed the party line by supporting Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen, but both Senate aides and activist groups complain that she is always the last one to come to the table, which endangers a cohesive Democratic opposition strategy.

On Owen, Feinstein wavered between supporting the Texas Supreme Court justice, whose opinions on abortion notification laws raised liberal eyebrows, under pressure from her good friend, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). Hutchison arranged a few private meetings between Feinstein and Owen before the Judiciary Committee’s first vote on the nomination in 2002, when Democrats controlled the panel.

“She was going to vote for Priscilla Owen because she thought she was a nice person,” said one Senate Democratic aide, who added that abortion-rights activists stepped in to convince Feinstein that Owen should not be confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

After that intense lobbying campaign, abortion-rights supporters say they were stunned when Feinstein appeared unwilling this year to renew her opposition to Owen’s renomination under a GOP-controlled Senate. Then, after voting against Owen in committee, Feinstein again hesitated to support the filibuster, before eventually acquiescing.

“She has a way of joining when it’s already sort of well on its way to being done,” said one former Senate Democratic leadership aide. “Yes, that exasperates some, but she usually ends up in the right place.”

Feinstein defended her votes by saying she tried not to have knee-jerk reactions to judicial nominees and likes to consider each nominee as an individual.

“It’s a question of how we see an individual being qualified to serve,” said Feinstein of her break with committee Democrats on a few judges. “Their temperament, their knowledge, their ability to be a good judge in following the law. And the times I’ve differed from my Democratic colleagues are miniscule.”

Many Democrats and liberal activists say her willingness to compromise with Republicans on sensitive Democratic issues, such as class-action lawsuits and deforesting, also creates a general frustration in the party.

“I think she desperately wants to be a deal maker, but she constantly makes bad deals,” said one national Democratic strategist. The strategist pointed to Feinstein’s support for a bill — vehemently opposed by the majority of the Democratic Caucus — that would move class-action lawsuits to federal courts, which traditionally have been more hostile to such suits than state courts.

When the Judiciary Committee considered the bill, Feinstein’s amendments to the measure were the only Democratic proposals accepted by the panel’s Republican majority. Most panel Democrats even voted against Feinstein’s changes.

Of course, Republicans praised Feinstein’s across-the-aisle work.

“She has the guts to stand up even though she takes a lot of criticism from Members on her side,” said one GOP Senator.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a conservative who has helped lead many of the Senate GOP majority’s attacks on Democrats including those on judicial nominees, has worked closely with Feinstein on the Judiciary subcommittee on technology, terrorism and homeland security. The two have co-sponsored a victim’s rights constitutional amendment as well as a port security bill, among other things.

Kyl said Republicans trust Feinstein more so than they do other Democrats. “You know you can be open and candid with her and know that she’s not going to turn around on you for political gain,” he said.

Feinstein’s home state, where none of her perceived party defections seem to matter, appears to be the best possible place for her to realize her ambitions.

Indeed, California Democrats are increasingly convinced that the recall effort will at least make it onto the March 4, 2004, presidential primary ballot. If that happens, the state party will be faced with two potential disaster scenarios — Davis losing to a well-known GOP candidate such as actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, or a protracted intraparty fight among relative unknowns over replacing Davis.

But if Feinstein agreed to be on the ballot, both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge her automatic edge.

Even though statewide Democrats, including Feinstein, have publicly rejected the efforts as a partisan attempt to overturn 2002’s popular election, no one, including Feinstein, has ruled out appearing on the ballot.

“Would she love to run the state of California? Yeah,” said longtime Feinstein campaign operative Kam Kuwata. “But is it going to happen? I can’t predict the future.”