By Juan Williams - 02/04/13 10:00 AM EST
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 KerryTime for Action on Bahrain When wise men attack: Why Gates is wrong about Clinton, Libya Internal memo: Refugee program vulnerable to fraud MORE left the body to become secretary of State. Earlier this month, another Senate five-termer, West Virginia Senator Jay RockefellerJay RockefellerLobbying world Overnight Tech: Senators place holds on FCC commissioner Overnight Tech: Senate panel to vote on Dem 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.
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 MurrayDems call for better birth control access for female troops US wins aerospace subsidies trade case over the EU Senate Dems unveil new public option push for 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 ReidBlack Caucus demands Flint funding from GOP Report: Intelligence officials probing Trump adviser's ties to Russia White House preps agencies for possible shutdown 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 SchumerSaudis hire lobbyists amid 9/11 fight Consumer bureau remains partisan target after Wells Fargo settlement Overnight Healthcare: Planned Parenthood deal in sight in Senate | A new 'public option' push MORE and Illinois’ Dick DurbinDick DurbinSpending bill doesn't include Cruz internet fight Overnight Tech: GOP says internet fight isn't over | EU chief defends Apple tax ruling | Feds roll out self-driving car guidelines | Netflix's China worries Reid blasts Cruz over internet fight 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 HeitkampOvernight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Iran president hints at future prisoner swaps, cash settlements with US Senators buck spending bill over Export-Import Bank MORE, Indiana’s Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyDem presses Congress to pass veteran suicide measure Senate Democrats block defense funding bill for third time Are Senate Republicans facing an election wipeout? MORE, West Virginia’s Joe ManchinJoe ManchinDemocrat vows to go after opioid makers – including daughter's company Overnight Healthcare: McConnell unveils new Zika package | Manchin defends daughter on EpiPens | Bill includes M for opioid crisis Democrat defends daughter after tough EpiPen grilling MORE and Montana’s Jon TesterJon TesterOvernight Healthcare: Mylan CEO to defend record on EpiPens | Medical cures bill delayed to lame duck | House GOP hopeful about Zika deal Tribes open new front in fight over pipelines Dem lawmakers: Clinton should have disclosed illness sooner 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 CollinsSwing-state Republicans play up efforts for gun control laws Reid knocks GOP on gun 'terror loophole' after attacks GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase MORE.
Even Republicans who once dared to team with Democrats on break-through legislation, people such as Arizona’s John McCainJohn McCainSenate rivals gear up for debates McCain opponent releases new ad hitting his record Why is the election so close? Experts say it's all in your head MORE and South Carolina’s Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Senators buck spending bill over Export-Import Bank Pelosi pans latest GOP stopgap spending offer 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 HatchInternet companies dominate tech lobbying Senate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners Overnight Tech: GOP says internet fight isn't over | EU chief defends Apple tax ruling | Feds roll out self-driving car guidelines | Netflix's China worries 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 UdallTensions rise over judicial nominees Dem senator wants to change nomination rules amid Garland fight Dem senators back Navajo lawsuit against EPA MORE (N.M.) and Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyOvernight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Wells CEO Stumpf resigns from Fed advisory panel Senate Dems call for investigation into Wells Fargo's wage practices 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.