When a President—Democrat or Republican—needs to sell a dirty arms deal, a misbegotten war, a grab after citizens’ civil liberties, they have the perfect ally in California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein. When congressional leaders need a progressive measure watered down, or to assuage the ‘moderates’ in their caucus, or to assure the Israeli lobby of their ironclad support for whatever act of self-immolation the Israeli government is preparing to perform, Feinstein is their woman.
I don’t even propose to get into the conflicts of interest that have dogged her thanks to her husband’s financial dealings, or the accusations levelled at Richard Blum of war profiteering. My biggest beef with Feintein is her willingness to carve out a position as Compromiser-in-Chief.
Now that might not sound like such a bad thing. Compromise, we’re told, is something we could use a little more of in Washington, D.C. The trouble is, Feinstein’s style of compromise is liable to tend assiduously to her reputation and persona while compromising the well-being and security of the people she’s charged with representing. For Feinstein, it’s compromise for its own sake rather than compromise in the pursuit of any policy aim informed by serious principle.
Like all Democrats who unaccountably crave the esteem of their warmongering, bloodthirsty Republican colleagues, Feinstein is a national security ‘hawk’. This means that either (depending on whether you think she’s cynical in her manoeuvring or cynical in the presentation of her politics, given her efforts to brand herself as a progressive in California and a hawk in D.C.) she beats the war-drums first and thinks later or she genuinely believes the neocon baloney that has wrapped her, together with the coffins of over 6,000 Americans, in the Stars and Stripes.
I remember Feinstein coming on television when the Obama administration was working out its healthcare plan and pooh-poohing the public option, favoured by many progressives. Sure, maybe it was unlikely to become the basis for healthcare reform (but we don’t know that for sure), but you don’t start the negotiating process by undercutting your own side and by advocating a rush to the right to appease the insurance industry.
Similarly, when Obama launched his review of the war in Afghanistan during the first year of his Presidency, Feinstein threw her support headlong behind the Generals who were eager to escalate the conflict. Such was the eagerness of these Generals (Petraeus, best-beloved by the neocon warmongers foremost among them) that they managed to forget the premise of civilian supremacy and, sometimes in direct contravention of orders from their superiors, come out in public explaining to us what the Obama administration had to do if it wanted to keep us safe. For Feinstein to endorse this unconstitutional meddling, this usurpation of Presidential prerogative, was wrong. And it says little of her judgement that she has been amongst the foremost cheerleaders for a bloody, costly war that takes us nowhere other than deeper into the spiral of an unwinnable conflict against an enemy we can’t even identify for objectives we can’t even articulate.
A strong supporter of the Patriot Act, Feinstein has done little to earn the respect of civil libertarians, and indeed, deserves nothing but opprobrium from those who value the rights that citizens reserve to themselves and each other. And when Congress and the Obama administration authored the deceptively-titled National Defence Authorisation Act which allows for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without trial, it was Feinstein who authored the “compromise” version of the legislation which, it was falsely claimed, safeguarded the rights of citizens. I’ve never been to Feinstein’s D.C. office, but I suspect it has a sign on the door reading “Whitewash Within”.
And then there was Iraq. We know that Feinstein was in good (or bad) company in supporting what became the defining moment of the Bush Presidency, and probably the most nakedly dishonest and obviously flawed of the many, many misconceived U.S. military interventions abroad since the Vietnam War. But you can’t claim to be the embodiment of reason and common sense and also claim to number among the most credulous of suckers.
Feinstein’s protestations that she was misled by the Bush administration ring hollow. Both because she has supported a similarly ill-judged war in Afghanistan to the hilt, and because if she wasn’t smart enough to ask the right questions and take a close look at the evidence that failed to convince plenty of her colleagues, she probably isn’t smart enough to do a good job as a U.S. Senator.
Like a certain Mitt Romney, Feinstein has perfected the art of sitting on the fence, one foot in either camp, trading on her buttoned-up demeanour, her abysmal national security record, and her reputation as a paragon of stolid soundness.
A popular refrain is that Feinstein, unlike California’s other Senator, Barbara Boxer, actually wields influence in D.C. because of her centrist stances. That might be true. But when you look at the work she has done covering the tracks of the Bush and Obama administrations as they waged war with more vigour than sense, and with more regard for their re-election bids, pet ideological theories, or corporate cronies than for Constitutional niceties, you have to wonder whether that influence is exercised for good or for ill.
Feinstein is the John Ashcroft of the Senate. Just as the wingnut Attorney General, tireless defender of George W Bush’s Patriot Act and Iraq war, got all hot and bothered when he saw a nude statue in the Justice Department, and rushed to cover it up, Feinstein hurls herself busily around the Senate, covering up this foreign policy misadventure or that, shielding this civil-liberties grab or that one from criticism. She deserves a measure of credit for opposing the bigoted Defence of Marriage Act and for support of some progressive environmental and energy-related measures.
But anyone can do that. Her real legacy, on those occasions where she’s taken a stance that matters at moments of lasting importance, is to act as the Fig Leaf of the Senate. We deserve better. And we should have a serious alternative in the Democratic Primary this year in California to give Di-Fi a retirement notice.