Opinion: Where are the liberal lions?

With the surprise announcement of Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinDistance education: Tumultuous today and yesterday Grassley challenger no stranger to defying odds Clinton ally stands between Sanders and chairmanship dream 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 KerryJohn Kerry channels Yoda in tweetstorm John Kerry goes on tweetstorm as Senate eyes Iran legislation John Kerry's advice to Harvard grads: Learn Russian MORE left the body to become secretary of State. Earlier this month, another Senate five-termer, West Virginia Senator Jay RockefellerJay RockefellerObama to preserve torture report in presidential papers Lobbying world Overnight Tech: Senators place holds on FCC commissioner 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 MurrayPatty MurraySenate Dems urge White House not to roll back free birth control rule Overnight Finance: Dems introduce minimum wage bill | Sanders clashes with Trump budget chief | Border tax proposal at death's door Sanders, Democrats introduce minimum wage bill 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 ReidGOP frustrated by slow pace of Trump staffing This week: Congress awaits Comey testimony Will Republicans grow a spine and restore democracy? 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 SchumerHow Trump can score a big league bipartisan win on infrastructure Overnight Finance: Dems introduce minimum wage bill | Sanders clashes with Trump budget chief | Border tax proposal at death's door GOP senators distance themselves from House ObamaCare repeal bill MORE and Illinois’ Dick DurbinDick DurbinUncertainty builds in Washington over White House leaks Top Dem: Kushner reports a 'rumor at this point' Sunday shows: Homeland Security chief hits the circuit after Manchester attack 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 HeitkampHeidi HeitkampSanders, Democrats introduce minimum wage bill GOP senators distance themselves from House ObamaCare repeal bill Separating fact from fiction in the Regulatory Accountability Act MORE, Indiana’s Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellySanders, Democrats introduce minimum wage bill Updated fuel regulations would modernize options at gas pumps Mnuchin mum as Dems press for answers on tax reform, Dodd-Frank MORE, West Virginia’s Joe ManchinJoe ManchinConvicted ex-coal exec appeals case to Supreme Court Sanders, Democrats introduce minimum wage bill Overnight Energy: Trump energy nominees face Congress | OPEC to extend production cuts MORE and Montana’s Jon TesterJon TesterSanders, Democrats introduce minimum wage bill Montana senator on Gianforte: Dealing with media ‘part of the job’ Senators pan WH proposal to cut airport security programs, hike ticket fees 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 CollinsDems plot recess offensive on ObamaCare Senate takes lead on Trump’s infrastructure proposal Navy leaders defend Trump's lackluster ship budget MORE.

Even Republicans who once dared to team with Democrats on break-through legislation, people such as Arizona’s John McCainJohn McCainDefense hawks gird for budget brawl Trump got harsher GOP reception than Bush on budget Armed Services chairman unveils .1B Asia-Pacific security bill MORE and South Carolina’s Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGraham: Calling climate change a 'hoax' bad for GOP Graham: Comey should be held accountable for acting on bad intel Trump got harsher GOP reception than Bush on budget 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 HatchGOP leaders launch internal review into leak Insurers: GOP should keep pre-existing condition protections DOJ pitches agreements to solve international data warrant woes 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 UdallTom UdallVA eyes building closures to boost care under Trump GOP senator: FCC must explain 'manhandling' reporter Senate Dems warn Trump admin shows 'pattern of hostility' to press MORE  (N.M.) and Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyRussia probes in limbo after special prosecutor announcement Special counsel appointment gets bipartisan praise Lawmakers unveil bill to combat Sessions' push for tougher sentences 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.