When Democrats chanted, “Time’s up! Time’s up!” at the California state convention this weekend, they weren’t protesting serial sexual harassers, as the Hollywood-based #TimesUp movement was founded to do. And they definitely weren’t calling for equal opportunities for women in leadership, the other goal of the Time’s Up movement.
Instead, the protesters were heckling Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator, as she walked off the convention stage where she made her case for re-election in 2018.
It’s hard to say if the activists were more engaged in unintentional irony or misplaced anger. But either way, the instinct to heckle Feinstein, instead of throw the woman a parade, should be a red flag for all Democrats as the party tries to figure out a way to win back the House and Senate in the first midterm elections under President Donald Trump.
You’d think that taking advantage of anti-Trump sentiment in California in an election year would be like fishing in an aquarium. How could you really get it wrong?
But by spending time, energy and money opposing a Democrat like Feinstein at the very moment when gun control and the #MeToo movement are the animating issues in politics, California activists are signaling that anger at Trump is more important to them than supporting someone who has been a legislative producer on some of the party’s most important issues for the last 20-plus years.
Feinstein was elected in 1992, which was dubbed the “Year of the Woman” by the national press after three (three!) women, including Feinstein, were elected to the Senate and brought the total up to five.
It was the first election after Anita Hill’s appearance at the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings showed a national television audience how male-dominated and tone deaf the Senate remained.
After she was elected to the Senate, Feinstein became the first woman ever to join the committee that had interrogated Hill as if she were the one on trial. Feinstein would become the first woman to chair the committee next year if Democrats take back the Senate, but she has to get re-elected first.
Right place, right time
It’s easy to dismiss committee assignments and bill introductions as a lot of D.C. mumbo jumbo during campaigns, but Feinstein’s committee assignments have been critical to the bills she’s written and passed, especially Judiciary. That’s where she wrote the 1994 assault weapons ban a year after a mass shooting in San Francisco killed eight people. That bill outlawed 18 different kinds of assault weapons and was the most restrictive gun legislation in the last 25 years.
Even before the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, earlier this month, Feinstein had already proposed a broader assault weapons ban to prevent the manufacture or importation of 205 military-style assault rifles, including the AR-15, as well as a ban on bump stocks, which a mass shooter in Las Vegas used to increase the amount of ammunition he could use as he shot at concertgoers hundreds of years away.
In the days after the Parkland shooting, Feinstein also announced she’s writing a bill to increase the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21.
“If you can’t buy a handgun or a bottle of beer, you shouldn’t be able to buy an AR-15,” she said in a statement last week.
In addition to gun control, Feinstein has focused on sexual assault and sexual harassment as the top Democrat on the committee.
Would a man have led the charge to expose the dereliction of responsibility at USA Gymnastics as Feinstein did last year? It’s hard to say, but she held emotional hearings to tell the stories of gymnasts who had been molested by Dr. Larry Nassar and passed a bill to require amateur athletic governing bodies to report sexual abuse allegations to local or federal law enforcement within 24 hours of hearing any allegations or rumors. The bill also extended the statute of limitations on suing those who perpetrate sex crimes.
Watch: Feinstein, Collins and Others Call for Better Reporting of Sexual Abuse in Athletics
On the Judiciary panel, Feinstein has been mansplained to by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz about the Bill of Rights and lectured by the spokesman for Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley about releasing a committee transcript unflattering to the Trump administration. But she’s pushed back on both in a way that most Democrats applauded.
And on issues where Feinstein hasn’t led the fight, she’s almost always been a reliable Democratic vote nonetheless.
Is she the most flamboyant Trump critic? No. Has she been one of the more effective legislators for Democratic priorities since she was elected in 1992? Yes, but that’s not exactly bumper sticker material in an election year.
‘A liberal’s liberal’
Instead of Feinstein, 54 percent of California Democratic activists went for Kevin de León, the 50-year-old state Democratic Senate leader who was raised by a single immigrant mom in San Diego and who will soon be term-limited out of his current job.
As Senate leader, de León has been a liberal’s liberal. He’s passed a law requiring background checks for the sale or purchase of ammunition, pushed aggressive climate change legislation, and authored the “Yes Means Yes” legislation, which mandated that California colleges use the standard of “affirmative” consent from both parties in campus sexual assault investigations. He has also led the Senate while a sexual harassment scandal has roiled the state legislature that he oversees.
In his speech to the convention, de León told Democrats, “I’m running because California’s greatness comes from acts of human audacity, not congressional seniority.”
Seniority might not be where California’s greatness comes from, but it is definitely how legislation gets passed, especially in the U.S. Senate. And the truth is that Feinstein has been especially adept at moving bills, particularly in the areas that Democrats are most animated by today.
If Democrats want to make real progress on their issues, including gun control, they would be wise to spend their time and energy in 2018 to defeat the people who oppose, instead of share, their agenda, if not their volume. Anger isn’t strategy; it’s therapy. And anger alone has never won an election.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.