Today, we live in a new Cold War, between our state and our nation, that the late senator tried to prevent
Dianne Feinstein’s death is more than just the end of a remarkable life.
It’s the severing of a vital link that connects California and the rest of the country.
In her 50-year political career, Feinstein held many positions, but her most important was unofficial: she served as California’s ambassador to the United States government.
This job was difficult, and it became more difficult as California, always an outlier, grew apart from the rest of the country.
During Feinstein’s 30-year Senate tenure, California became more progressive and democratic, even as the rest of the country retreated into conservative populism and right-wing nationalism.
Feinstein was an outlier in an era of increasing polarization and side-taking. She was a member of both teams.
She had a strong faith in California and its liberal values on LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, gun control, and environmental issues. But she also believed deeply in the American system of government and remained committed to a Senate with rules that made enacting those values into federal law nearly impossible.
To reconcile her California and American allegiances, she acted as a human bridge between two opposing shores. How did she do that? There are two answers: tenacity and intelligence. She personified F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
It didn’t hurt that Feinstein was a wealthy woman. Her home was California’s unofficial embassy in Washington, a $7 million estate that had previously housed American University presidents.She knew her job as a diplomat was to talk to opponents, including leading Republicans.
It was no coincidence that the Republican she grew closest to was Maine Senator Susan Collins, whose vote could swing the Senate.
Feinstein also used her diplomatic skills to hold together the fractious Democratic coalition, which included California’s all-too-few allies. After the 2008 primaries, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton reconciled at her home.
However, as Washington grew angrier and more conservative, it became more difficult to be a diplomat. The Bush administration saw the demise of her legacy, as the assault weapons ban she championed in 1994 expired in 2004. And the heinous Trump years made her bipartisan efforts to reform immigration and prevent the government from using torture appear illogical.
The United States government, which she had faithfully served, had grown monstrous, erecting concentration camps for migrant children. And her friend Susan Collins voted in favor of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees who would revoke women’s reproductive rights and block reasonable gun controls.
The California Democratic Party, fed up with Feinstein’s diplomacy, backed her combative opponent, Kevin de León, in 2018. “California Democrats are hungry for new leadership that will fight for California values from the front lines, not equivocate on the sidelines,” De León said in a statement.
Feinstein won the election regardless, but her political base crumbled. Former allies demanded her resignation as she grew older.
She was the most unpopular Democratic politician in California at the time of her death.
Feinstein’s ambassadorship failed because California and the United States had drifted too far apart. Today, we are living in a new Cold War between our state and our country, which Feinstein attempted to prevent.
We also live in an era of daily mass murders with assault weapons, which Feinstein cannot permanently prohibit. We live in a state of surveillance that Feinstein sought to limit. We deport immigrants who Feinstein wanted to integrate into American life without due process.
It’s telling that Feinstein’s replacement, appointed by our culture-warmongering governor, is a labor and political operative, and that the candidates running to fill her seat are three polarizing House members.
These prospective Feinstein’s successors may praise her, but they will not attempt to fill her shoes. Nobody wants to play Feinstein anymore.
Dianne, our last ambassador, rest in peace.