Feinstein's death shines a spotlight on the issue of aging politicians
Category: Op/EdVia: gregtx • 5 months ago • 9 comments
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who died Thursday night at the age of 90, was a trailblazer during her time in office but faced increasing scrutiny over her fitness to serve over the last year, putting the issue of aging politicians front and center.
After the senior California senator was hospitalized with shingles in February, which was further complicated by encephalitis, she faced criticism from her colleagues, with some calling on her to resign after a nearly three-month absence caused delays for President Joe Biden's judicial nominees.
Feinstein announced her plan to retire in February but vowed to serve out the remaining 20 months of her term. Concerns about the senator's age and health intensified following her highly anticipated return to the Capitol in May, looking frail and at times disoriented. In August, she was briefly hospitalized after she fell in her home in San Francisco.
In the months leading up to her death, there was growing evidence of her cognitive decline.
In February, she denied she had decided not to seek reelection in 2024 after her office put out a statement announcing her retirement.
"I haven't made that decision. I haven't released anything," she told reporters on Tuesday afternoon.
Her staffer promptly let her know a statement had been released, to which she responded, "You put out the statement? I should have known they put it out."
In late July, the senator seemed confused during an Appropriations Committee roll-call vote. Feinstein began speaking instead of casting a vote. "Just say 'Aye,'" Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the chairwoman of the committee, could be heard telling Feinstein.
In late 2020, Feinstein asked the same question twice, unaware she was repeating herself in a hearing with former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
"The senator truly has an incredible legacy, I just wish she had retired sooner," said a Senate Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It's a shame all of the stories about her will now include details of the last year when she was not well, instead of focusing on all the incredible work she did."
A debate about age and politics has become a political flashpoint over the last year, as a growing number of the nation's leaders are getting older, forcing many to consider the question: How old is too old to hold public office?
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley has called for cognitive tests for prospective officeholders over 75, in what some saw as a swipe at her elders in the race for the White House. "In the America I see, the permanent politician will finally retire," she said at her campaign launch.
The current Congress is one of the oldest ever. More than two dozen lawmakers come from the Silent Generation born between 1928 and 1945. The median age of Congress is 59 years old, and it's been trending upward. The median age for senators is 65, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appeared to freeze for half a minute while answering questions from reporters in late August, strikingly similar to an episode in July. The 81-year-old was hospitalized earlier this year after suffering a fall that required him to complete physical therapy. He experienced a concussion and minor rib fracture that sidelined him from the Senate for nearly six weeks. In the wake of those incidents, it was later revealed McConnell suffered two other falls this year, one in Helsinki and another at Ronald Reagan National Airport.
The attending physician of the Capitol ruled out a seizure, stroke, or other movement disorder after the incident. Earlier this month, McConnell dismissed questions about whether he'll retire
"I have no announcements to make on that subject," he told reporters during a weekly press conference on Sept. 6. "I am going to finish my term as leader, and I'm going to finish my Senate term."
McConnell's term as GOP leader expires after the 2024 election. His Senate term expires in January 2027.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)gave up her leadership position in November, saying it was time for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus. Fellow octogenarian House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) also announced he would step down from the No. 2 post, allowing Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark (D-MA), and Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Pete Aguilar (D-CA) to rise to the top three spots.
"I believe that it is time for me, however, to continue my service in a different role. Therefore, I have decided not to seek elected leadership in the 118th Congress," Hoyer said in a statement at the time.
However, Pelosi, 83, announced earlier this month that she plans to run for reelection in 2024.
The age of octogenarian Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also looms over the question of whether he will run for a fourth term in the Senate next year.
The 82-year-old independent, who caucuses with the Democrats, has been evasive about whether he will run again, making some wonder whether this term in the Senate could be his last. Sanders has had some health challenges of his own. In 2019, he experienced chest discomfort while at a campaign event in Nevada and later disclosed he had a heart attack. The senator had two stents inserted to open up a blocked artery in his heart, according to a statement from his doctors at the time.
"He will be 89 by the end of his term if he decides to run in 2024," a Democratic strategist speaking on condition of anonymity said. "I think he needs to think very carefully about his legacy, especially with what we've seen going on in the Senate with aging lawmakers."
Now 80, President Joe Biden is the oldest sitting commander in chief in history. If reelected, he would be 82 when he starts his second term and 86 by the time it's over. Biden, who began serving in the U.S. Senate in 1973, had already been in the Senate for nearly 20 years by the time Feinstein was sworn in 1992.
A majority of voters continue to raise concerns about Biden's age. A recent AP poll found 77% of voters said Biden is too old to be effective for four more years.
Not only do 89% of Republicans say that, so do 69% of Democrats.
Former President Donald Trump, 77, isn't far behind, but his age has not received as much attention.
In contrast, some lawmakers are making the opposite decision. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), 76, recently announced he would not seek reelection in 2024, saying it's "time for a new generation of leaders."
"They're the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in," he said.