Opinion: Where are the liberal lions?

With the surprise announcement of Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinGrassley challenger no stranger to defying odds Clinton ally stands between Sanders and chairmanship dream Do candidates care about our health or just how much it costs? 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 KerryFBI Director Comey sought to reveal Russian election meddling last summer: report Congress, Trump need a united front to face down Iran One year ago today we declared ISIS atrocities as genocide 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 MurrayOvernight Regulation: Senate panel approves Trump's Labor pick Pence breaks tie, allowing Senate to revoke Obama order on abortion provider funding Senate committee advances Trump's Labor pick 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 ReidWhat if there’s no 'Nuclear Option' in the Senate? Republican failure Senate about to enter 'nuclear option' death spiral 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 SchumerPence breaks tie, allowing Senate to revoke Obama order on abortion provider funding With Freedom Caucus dig, Trump masters the media ... again Pence casts tiebreaking Senate procedural vote on funding for abortion providers MORE and Illinois’ Dick DurbinDick DurbinKushner meets with lawmakers about criminal justice reform: report Dem leaders give centrists space on Gorsuch Republicans seek to lower odds of a shutdown 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 HeitkampSchumer: 'Virtually impossible' to reach deal on Gorsuch Grassley: Gorsuch will fall short of 60 votes Two Dems announce they'll vote for Gorsuch MORE, Indiana’s Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyGrassley: Gorsuch will fall short of 60 votes Two Dems announce they'll vote for Gorsuch Manchin first Dem to announce support for Gorsuch MORE, West Virginia’s Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSchumer: 'Virtually impossible' to reach deal on Gorsuch Grassley: Gorsuch will fall short of 60 votes Overnight Regulation: Senate panel approves Trump's Labor pick MORE and Montana’s Jon TesterJon TesterGrassley: Gorsuch will fall short of 60 votes Dem leaders give centrists space on Gorsuch Senate Dems to Trump: Work with us on ObamaCare 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 CollinsOvernight Healthcare: Ryan says key ObamaCare payments will continue during House lawsuit Pence breaks tie, allowing Senate to revoke Obama order on abortion provider funding Pence casts tiebreaking Senate procedural vote on funding for abortion providers MORE.

Even Republicans who once dared to team with Democrats on break-through legislation, people such as Arizona’s John McCainJohn McCainMcCain having 'conversations' with Dems on Gorsuch nomination Live coverage: Senate intel holds first public Russia hearing McCain responds to North Korean criticism to calling Kim Jong-un 'crazy fat kid' MORE and South Carolina’s Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Finance: Dems seek probe of acting SEC chief | Defense hawks say they won't back short-term funding | Senate seen as start point for Trump infrastructure plan | Dems want more money for IRS Overnight Defense: Pentagon considers more troops for Afghanistan | McCain, Graham won't back short-term funding | GOP defends Trump rules of engagement McCain and Graham: We won't back short-term government funding bill 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 HatchWhat if there’s no 'Nuclear Option' in the Senate? Senate votes to eliminate Obama-era retirement rule Battle over tech patents spills into Supreme Court 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 UdallGovernment Accountability Office will review Mar-a-Lago security procedures The Hill's 12:30 Report Dems introduce MAR-A-LAGO Act to publish visitor logs MORE  (N.M.) and Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyDem senator: Credibility of House Russia probe ‘in shreds’ The Hill’s Whip List: 2 Dems for, 34 against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Dem senator accuses Trump of 'dangerous tilt towards authoritarianism' 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.