Opinion: Where are the liberal lions?

With the surprise announcement of Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinOrrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate Democrats are all talk when it comes to DC statehood The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s (D-Iowa) retirement, the Senate is fast closing the book on post-Watergate politics that produced a generation of liberal Democrats.


Harkin’s announcement came the same week that five-term Massachusetts Senator John KerryJohn Forbes KerryFeehery: Oprah Dem presidential bid unlikely Dem hopefuls flock to Iowa Change in Iran will only come from its people — not the United States MORE left the body to become secretary of State. Earlier this month, another Senate five-termer, West Virginia Senator Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerOvernight Tech: Trump nominates Dem to FCC | Facebook pulls suspected baseball gunman's pages | Uber board member resigns after sexist comment Trump nominates former FCC Dem for another term Obama to preserve torture report in presidential papers MORE, said he doesn’t plan to run for re-election in 2014. Last month, 8-term Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii died.

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Since the deaths of Massachusetts’s Ted Kennedy and Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone, the Senate has not had a signal, outstanding liberal voice. The liberal faction even takes a back seat to conservative Dems who hold the threat of defecting and costing the party its majority on key votes for gun control, taxes and spending. The conservative Democrats stopped the Democratic majority in the Senate from passing a budget for the last four years for fear it might be attacked as “liberal.”

Now the changing of the liberal guard is well under way and it is unclear which younger Democratic senators will step forward and become the keepers of the liberal flame. Washington Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayCDC director to miss fourth hearing because of potential ethics issues Week ahead: Lawmakers near deal on children's health funding Ryan suggests room for bipartisanship on ObamaCare MORE is proving to be a strong liberal and a wily political strategist. But she has yet to break out as a leading liberal conscience and national voice.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems search for winning playbook Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response The Memo: Immigration battle tests activists’ muscle MORE’s (Nev.) primary liberal credential is that he is a reliable ally in any storm for the man who once ranked as the most liberal politician in the Senate — President Obama. But with a 29 percent job approval rating in the latest New York Times poll, Sen. Reid’s power to define the liberal agenda is confined to his role in the Senate.

Standing behind Reid are two contenders for the mantle of new generation liberal lion: New York’s Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration White House: Trump remarks didn't derail shutdown talks Schumer defends Durbin after GOP senator questions account of Trump meeting MORE and Illinois’ Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ Ex-Sheriff David Clarke: Trump only one who 'cares about black American citizens' DHS chief takes heat over Trump furor MORE. Both are members of the “Gang of Eight,” which unveiled a comprehensive immigration  proposal last week.

But both Majority Whip Durbin and Senate Policy Committee Chair Schumer are busy simply trying to hold their 55-member majority together in support of Obama’s agenda. Their focus is on keeping tabs on potential defections from conservative Democrats such as North Dakota’s Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampPawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota GOP's Cramer won't run for ND Senate seat GOP Rep. Cramer 'trending' toward ND Senate run MORE, Indiana’s Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDems search for winning playbook GOP anxious with Trump on trade Blue wave of 2018 stops in Indiana and Missouri MORE, West Virginia’s Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinMcConnell to Dems: Don't hold government 'hostage' over DACA Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in MORE and Montana’s Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterEMILY’s List president: Franken did 'right thing for Minnesota' Reforming veterans health care for all generations of veterans Trump and Republicans deliver gift that keeps on giving for Americans MORE.

Over the last 50 years, the Senate’s liberal lions stood out for the capacity to speak as idealists and attract moderate Republicans to their deeply felt causes. One problem for today’s liberals is that there is only one moderate Republican left – Maine’s Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocrats search for 51st net neutrality vote Overnight Tech: States sue FCC over net neutrality repeal | Senate Dems reach 50 votes on measure to override repeal | Dems press Apple on phone slowdowns, kids' health | New Android malware found Overnight Regulation: Dems claim 50 votes in Senate to block net neutrality repeal | Consumer bureau takes first step to revising payday lending rule | Trump wants to loosen rules on bank loans | Pentagon, FDA to speed up military drug approvals MORE.

Even Republicans who once dared to team with Democrats on break-through legislation, people such as Arizona’s John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE and South Carolina’s Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House MORE, are now living in fear of primary challenges from the far right. They are dealing with Sens. Schumer and Durbin on the current immigration proposal. But that is all a matter of convenience. Republicans need an immigration deal. There is no idealism at play from the right or the left.

Teddy Kennedy rose to become a liberal lion by collaborating with Republicans. His work with conservative Republican Senator Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchKoch groups: Don't renew expired tax breaks in government funding bill Hatch tweets link to 'invisible' glasses after getting spotted removing pair that wasn't there DHS giving ‘active defense’ cyber tools to private sector, secretary says MORE (Utah) will always stand out as an example of liberal leadership that stood above the horse-trading of Washington politics. 

Kennedy was the protector of the Left but he was also a skilled politician able to bring over the center and the right. The result was bipartisan legislation dealing with immigration, entitlements and education. That made Kennedy an effective advocate for the idea of acting in the best interest of the poor, the young, the workingman, women’s rights and equal rights for minorities — old-fashioned liberal idealism.

There is no current Democratic senator close to commanding the kind of stature or authority that Kennedy did. Liberalism does not have a powerful advocate in the halls of Congress today and it shows. 

Last week, the New York Times’ liberal editorial page had enough. Senate Democrats increased their numbers in the last election, the paper editorialized, and have public opinion with them on taxes, guns, education and financial regulation. But those Senate Democrats remain paralyzed by fear. 

The paper cited disappointment with the filibuster reform deal reached by Senate leaders last month. The new rules did nothing to address the abuse of the filibuster and the 60-vote procedural threshold that has been used by the Republican minority to block virtually all legislation. 

After “being out-yelled by strident right-wing ideologues, too many in the Democratic Party still have a case of nerves, afraid of bold action and forth-right principles,” The Times’ editorial argued, in making the case for strong liberal voices to speak up. 

By simply calling for an end to the “silent” filibuster and requiring senators to be present and stand up to conduct an extended filibuster, Democratic Senators Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallCongress has been broken by the special interests – here’s how we fix it Senate GOP seeks to change rules for Trump picks Dems celebrate Jones victory in Alabama race MORE  (N.M.) and Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyEarly tax bill reality very different than Democratic rhetoric Senate GOP seeks to change rules for Trump picks Dem senators tear into Trump: Tax bill 'a very big Christmas gift from Trump to himself' MORE (Ore.) won praise as budding liberal heroes. 

A generational fight for the future of liberalism is now center stage in the Senate. 

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.