Her legacy, and the controversial appointment to replace her.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
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- Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) introduced a motion to remove speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). There are some early indications Democrats may be willing to help McCarthy in exchange for concessions. (The moves)
- Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) was carjacked last night in front of a Washington, D.C., apartment building that houses dozens of House members. (The incident)
- North Dakota state Sen. Doug Larsen (R), his wife, and two children were killed in a plane crash in Utah. (The tragedy)
- Sam Bankman-Fried, the FTX founder, began his criminal fraud trial today. The 31-year-old is facing multiple felony counts. (The trial)
- The police chief who led an August raid on a small newspaper in Kansas resigned after bodycam footage showed an officer searching the desk of a reporter who had investigated the chief's past. (The resignation)
Dianne Feinstein and Laphonza Butler. On Thursday night, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein died at her home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 90.
In 1978, after eight years on the local board of supervisors, two failed mayoral races, and threats on her life from radical groups in San Francisco, Feinstein had told reporters that she intended to quit politics. Just two hours later, a shooting at San Francisco's City Hall killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay supervisor. Feinstein famously ran toward the gunfire and tried to stop Milk’s bleeding. A group of supervisors named her acting mayor hours later, and her ability to navigate the city through the tragedy catapulted her political career forward.
Feinstein ended up becoming the longest serving female senator in U.S. history, and California's longest serving Senator ever. As a member of Congress, she was best known for her work on intelligence and judicial committees, as well as championing civil rights and gun control. She helped spearhead a ban on assault-style firearms, investigated the CIA's use of torture after 9/11, and certified the appointment of several important Supreme Court justices.
She had become a target of progressive Democrats in recent years, who criticized her support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said she was too dismissive of the threat of climate change, called out her family’s explosion of wealth during her time in office, and became frustrated when she refused to step down as her health declined.
Feinstein was widely considered a trailblazer for women in elected office, becoming the first female mayor of San Francisco in 1978, the first woman to be considered as a presidential running mate in 1984, the first female major-party candidate for governor in California, the first female senator from California in 1992, and the first woman to preside over a president's inaugural ceremony in 2009, for Barack Obama. As the Wall Street Journal reported, "Even in death, Feinstein broke the norms set for women. She is the first female senator to die in office, amid health and acuity questions that hadn’t prevented men from continuing to hold their offices in the past."
Feinstein had already announced she would not run again in 2024, but faced criticism for staying in office despite reports of her cognitive decline and a bout with shingles that left her homebound for several months. Her vote on Thursday to advance a temporary spending bill, just hours before her death, was her final vote in the Senate.
“There are few women who can be called senator, chairman, mayor, wife, mom and grandmother,” her office said in a statement.
With Feinstein's death, Democrats now hold a Senate majority of 50-49. On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced he would appoint Laphonza Butler, the president of EMILY's List, to fill her seat. EMILY's List is a fundraising group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. Butler is expected to be sworn in on Wednesday, and Newsom said he will not put any limitations on the appointment, meaning she can run for re-election when the seat becomes open in a special election in the March primary to replace Feinstein.
Butler, registered to vote in Maryland, will now switch her registration and move permanently to California. Butler had previously served on a consulting firm with Newsom’s top political advisors and is a confidant to Vice President Kamala Harris, having worked on her 2020 presidential campaign. She spent nearly two decades as a labor leader for the Service Employees International Union, and later as a director of public policy and campaigns at Airbnb. She was also instrumental in helping pass the $15 minimum wage hike in California under then-Gov. Jerry Brown.
Butler, who is black, fulfills Newsom's pledge to nominate a black woman to the seat. She is also the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate.
Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the left and right to Feinstein's death and Butler's appointment, then my take.
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What the left is saying.
- The left mostly honored Feinstein's legacy, though many criticized her record in Congress.
- Some suggested she led the "neoliberal turn" of the Democratic party.
- Others focused on Laphonza Butler, who met Newsom's criteria for a replacement but may not even run to stay in the Senate.
In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd celebrated Feinstein, writing that you have to remember how male Washington, D.C., was in 1992 to appreciate what she did.
"Unlike Hillary, who got tangled in the gender issue, Feinstein (like Pelosi) played the game without regard for gender. She wasn’t worried about sexist criticism; she was focused on doing what she thought was right, no matter who complained," Dowd said. She went viral in 2019 when she "briskly rebuffed" a group of child activists who confronted her for not supporting the Green New Deal, "saying she wasn’t succumbing to any 'my way or the highway' demands." She "led the fight in 2014 to release the classified report on U.S. torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo. It took guts to go up against President Barack Obama and his C.I.A. chief John Brennan, who wanted to keep covering up what The Times would call 'a portrait of depravity.'
"George W. Bush’s C.I.A. director Michael Hayden said dismissively that Feinstein couldn’t be objective because she was motivated by 'deep emotional feeling,'" Dowd noted. "Despite being surrounded by Republican lawmakers who never met a gun they didn’t like, Feinstein did her best to stop people from getting killed in mass shootings, driven by her traumatic experience with the assassination of Mayor George Moscone of San Francisco and Harvey Milk... When she opposed the 2008 proposal to ban gay marriage in California, she told me of the evolution of her thinking: 'The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve seen the happiness of people, the stability that these commitments bring to a life. Many adopted children who would have ended up in foster care now have good solid homes and are brought up learning the difference between right and wrong.' Yep. A class act, all the way."
In Jacobin, Liza Featherstone criticized Feinstein, saying she helped lead the Democratic Party's "neoliberal turn."
"She deserves recognition — and it should go without saying that Feinstein’s death is sad for those close to her — but the hymns of praise miss her real significance. Celebrated as a 'pragmatist,' Feinstein in fact helped remake the Democratic Party into a political vehicle for the very rich, and relatedly, the military-industrial complex," Featherstone wrote. As mayor of San Francisco, "she dutifully advanced the interests of the rich, allowing the real estate industry in particular to add '30 million soulless square feet' of downtown office construction, while neglecting the needs and neighborhoods of the working class."
"What the establishment loved about Feinstein is clear from these obituaries: she opposed what elites deem the excesses of the Left," Featherstone said. "On the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, before Roe v. Wade, she carried out harsh penalties against illegal abortion providers, and in a 2022 interview with New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister, she didn’t seem to regret her actions in the least. As a senator, she supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, catastrophically. Even more horrendous, her husband, Richard Blum, had significant investments in the arms industry, which meant that Feinstein profited personally from the wars she backed — and, therefore, from the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, and Americans.”
In Vox, Nicole Narea examined Feinstein's replacement, Laphonza Butler.
"Butler fulfills two criteria that Newsom sought in Feinstein’s temporary successor: She is a Black woman, and she is not currently campaigning in the 2024 Democratic primary for Feinstein’s seat. Since Kamala Harris became vice president, there has not been a single Black woman serving in the Senate — a void Newsom had promised to fill," Narea said. "However, most Californians said in a September Berkeley IGS poll that they wanted Newsom to appoint someone who was prepared to run for a full term in 2024. Butler is free to jump into the race, but she could face an uphill battle against well-known and well-funded opponents who have already been campaigning for months."
"Should she choose to run, Butler’s extensive experience in advocacy and political campaigns could help her overcome Schiff, Porter, and Lee’s head start. In addition to supporting Democrats’ pro-abortion-rights messaging, Butler served as a senior adviser to Harris when she ran for president in 2020 and was a prominent labor leader in California for decades. Those roles, in addition to her time atop Emily’s List, could provide the network needed to quickly raise funds and organize on the ground. At the moment, however, she and her allies appear to be placing focus on the immediate future."
What the right is saying.
- Many on the right focused on Feinstein's age and the fortune she amassed while in the Senate.
- Some said her death should trigger a national reckoning on our aging representatives.
- Others criticized Gov. Newsom for tapping a Maryland resident to serve as California's senator.
In National Review, Jim Geraghty said it's time to have a “serious discussion about elderly elected officials.”
"Whatever you think of her and her 31 years in the Senate, she was loved by a lot of people, and those people are hurting right now. We should all hope that God eases the grief of Feinstein’s friends, family, and supporters; perhaps they can find solace in the fact that Feinstein packed so many accomplishments into her 90 years," he wrote. "But the passing of Feinstein really ought to trigger a serious and sustained discussion and decisions about the elderly political leaders currently atop both political parties. President Biden turns 81 in less than two months. Republican front-runner and former president Donald Trump is 77 years old. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 82 and recently had some troubling freeze-ups on camera.
"Believe it or not, a chunk of Congress is even older," he wrote. "Feinstein missed a lot of votes in the past few years. What’s more, it has been clear for years that Feinstein’s age and health were deteriorating to the point where she had great difficulty performing her duties. Multiple ‘exposés’ showcased her problems with short-term memory, confusion, difficulty recognizing colleagues she knew well, and increasing dependence upon her staff." The Senate can function "with a couple members who are struggling to get through the day," but "the White House is different; it needs a commander in chief, and the person behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office needs a certain amount of physical energy and mental sharpness."
In PJ Media, Ben Bartee said Feinstein's "ill-gotten fortune" should be returned to the people.
"Harry Truman reportedly said, 'Show me a man that gets rich by being a politician, and I’ll show you a crook.' Throughout her lifelong career in 'public service,' Dianne Feinstein amassed for herself an absurd fortune fit for a Fortune 500 CEO, not a senator making a relatively paltry salary," Bartee wrote. "Now that she’s dead, after the fog of war of endless fawning over her braveness and stunningness clear, let’s talk estate tax. I generally don’t favor the estate tax, derisively called the 'death tax' by critics, but in the case of corrupt, lifelong politicians, I’m willing to make a glaring exception."
The Daily Mail reported the late senator's daughter and stepdaughters will inherit her $102 million property portfolio and $62 million private jet. "Let’s be generous and assume that throughout her 31 years in the Senate, Feinstein was making her $174,000 annual salary that entire time and that she saved every red cent. She would have been worth $5.39 million at the time of her death," Bartee said. "I don’t care, as has widely been reported, that the bulk of her wealth was generated by her also-deceased husband, Richard Blum, an investor at Blum Capital Partners. Richard almost certainly used his wife’s government connections to build his fortune."
Writing about Laphonza Butler in The Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe Doescher said Newsom "went to Maryland to find California a black woman to appoint as senator."
"Laphonza Romanique Butler, California's newest senator-designate, only spent about a decade in total living in the state. Born and raised in Mississippi, Butler moved to California in 2009 as a labor organizer, eventually leading the state's Service Employees International Union, its largest labor union. Butler left the SEIU in 2018 for a political consulting firm and to boost Kamala Harris's bid for the White House and served one year as an executive at Airbnb. Butler decamped California to become the president of the pro-abortion political organization known as EMILY's List in 2021 and has been listing her address as Silver Spring, Maryland, ever since.”
"Just as Biden boxed himself into the mandate of choosing Harris as his running mate, Newsom didn't have many options once he promised at the altar of identity politics to pick a black woman to replace Feinstein," Doescher added. "Hispanic people, not black people, compose a plurality of California's population at nearly 40%, with white people making up another third and Asian Americans another sixth of the state's population… Forgoing the nearly 40 million people living in California, Newsom went to Maryland to make a Mississippi-born union organizer a 1-in-100 member of the world's greatest deliberative body."
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- I won’t belabor the point about how she should have stepped down, as I’ve written and spoken about it many times.
- Like most politicians, her legacy contains many achievements I view favorably and many I don’t.
- As for Butler, she’s certainly qualified, but the fact she doesn’t appear to be a California resident is a pretty significant detail.
As with most politicians, Feinstein's legacy is complicated.
I've spent a lot of time writing and talking about the need for Feinstein to step down, so I'm not going to belabor the point now that she has died. Nor do I think it is necessary to spend much time writing about her gender or how she was a trailblazer — that has been sufficiently covered by the pundits, and there's no doubt that she is one of the most influential women ever to enter politics. She changed the game forever, and for the better.
As a member of Congress, Feinstein's best moments came when she was performing oversight on agencies like the CIA. She rightly called the CIA's legacy of torturing detainees "a stain on our values and on our history," remarks she delivered despite attempts by then-President Obama to silence her. As a mayor, she was hands-on, known for daily media interactions and for "racing to scenes of fires and water-main breaks," as The New York Times put it. That’s the kind of politician after my own heart. It’s also worth noting her priorities as a local politician in San Francisco were ones the city could use now: She focused a lot on housing and crime. And while critics often claimed she was "too pro-business," she left behind a city and state that is now the engine of the U.S. economy.
Some of her work in Congress also likely had a positive impact on you: She pushed for higher fuel efficiency in standard cars, for instance. And she recognized the huge imbalance in criminal proceedings, championing "victims’ rights" throughout her time in office. Though a Constitutional amendment on the issue hasn't been passed, many states have adopted policies based on the reforms she pushed, and the movement for a victims’ rights amendment lives on.
And perhaps most famously, she is known for her gun control advocacy. While it's true that the assault weapons ban she pushed did very little to decrease mass shootings, she at least came to her activism on the issue honestly. California had just faced a series of deadly shootings at the time when she pushed for the ban, and her political rise was driven in part by her experience during the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco's mayor and Harvey Milk. In a 2008 interview, Feinstein recalled finding Milk after he was shot, looking for a pulse, and putting her finger through a bullet hole in his body.
Of course, there's plenty to criticize, too. Most notably, she supported both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all while her husband was heavily invested in the arms industry. She was part of the Democratic machine that was in the tank for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and did everything she could to stop the grassroots rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders, including warning that his supporters would start 1968-like riots. And, yes, she held on to power far too long — her absence even cost Democrats some worthy environmental legislation.
And while it's true that she amassed a massive fortune while in office, something that always raises my suspicions, it's also true that she's never been credibly tied to political corruption or insider trading despite years of scrutiny. There is some circumstantial evidence, sure, but as much as I'd like to call her out for the obscene reality of a politician becoming insanely rich while in office, I don't have the evidence to say she did it corruptly.
On the whole, Feinstein was mostly a moderate, a Democrat willing to criticize her own team and work across the aisle (she once drew flack for hugging Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham after Amy Coney Barrett's appointment to the Supreme Court). That’s why you'll see most criticism of her as tepid, unless it is coming from the farther reaches of the left or right.
As for Butler, I really wish Democrats would stop promising to appoint people of certain races or creeds, as the focus inevitably ends up being on those things when they're tapped. Butler is qualified for the role and, as far as California goes, appropriate for the moment. She has government experience and she’s a policy expert. More importantly, she's a storied labor leader and a fervent supporter of abortion rights at a time when those two policy sectors are dominating the news and are political winners for Democrats. Yet most of the stories center on the fact she is black and gay.
Everything about her fits — except her ties to California. Her lack of connection to the state (she has to switch her voter registration from Maryland!) should be the subject of scorn the same way it was for Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. If she decides to run in the March primary, it will (and should) be a huge obstacle for her to overcome. Aside from that issue, which is certainly not a small one, she seems like a reasonable pick for Newsom. I’ll be curious to see how she fares in an actual election, though, if she decides to run.
Your questions, answered.
Since we combined Feinstein's death and the appointment of Butler in today's newsletter, this edition got pretty long, so we are skipping our reader question for the day. Reminder: If you want to have a question answered in the newsletter, you can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.
Under the radar.
The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence-generated images has raised concerns that this technology could be used to spread misinformation ahead of the 2024 election. Google, however, thinks it has developed a solution. In August, the company announced SynthID, a tool that embeds a “digital watermark” into the pixels of images that can’t be seen by the naked eye but can be picked up by specially trained computers. SynthID is still in testing, but Google hopes to use the tool to create a system to identify most AI-created images — though it cautions that 100% detection rates will be difficult to achieve. The project is part of a tech industry-wide effort to curtail the negative effects of the AI services they are beginning to deploy at scale, particularly when it comes to determining the accuracy of political content. In June, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Meta, ChatGPT-maker OpenAI, and other companies in the AI space agreed to a voluntary pledge with the White House to share data about the safety of their systems with the government. The Washington Post has the story.
- 1992. The year Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Carol Moseley Braun, and Patty Murray won election to the Senate, the first time four women had been elected to the Senate in a single election year.
- Five. The number of presidencies during which Feinstein served in the Senate.
- 2022. The year Feinstein surpassed Barbara A. Mikulski’s record as the longest-tenured female senator in U.S. history.
- 46. The number of U.S. states, including California, where governors have the power to make temporary appointments to fill U.S. Senate vacancies. North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin do not allow governors to make temporary appointments.
- 9. The number of U.S. states that require the Senate appointee to be of the same party as the vacating senator: Arizona, Hawai’i, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, North Carolina, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
- 51%. The percentage of California voters who said they preferred Governor Gavin Newsom nominate someone prepared to run for a full term (as opposed to an appointee who would not seek re-election) if Senator Feinstein’s seat was vacated before the end of her term, according to a September 2023 poll from Berkeley IGS.
- One year ago today we wrote about the new Supreme Court term.
- The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was our "Have a nice day" feature on the pilot whose last flight was with his son as first officer.
- Winningest loser: 712 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking who the biggest winner of the averted government shutdown was, with 35% saying Speaker Kevin McCarthy. 25% said House Democrats, 8% said President Joe Biden, 4% said House Republicans, and fewer than 1% said the House Freedom Caucus, Senate Democrats, or Senate Republicans. 27% were unsure or had no opinion. "There's got to be a better way to do this. Brinkmanship makes losers of us all," one respondent said.
- Nothing to do with politics: New, from Mattel: Stevie Nicks Barbie.
- Take the poll. How would you characterize Feinstein's legacy? Let us know!
Have a nice day.
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