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Welcome to Another Golden Era of Liberal Senators

One of the most stunning outcomes of the 2012 elections was the Democrats’ two-seat gain in the Senate. With 23 seats at risk to only ten for Republicans, Democrats were hoping simply to hold their own or keep their losses to a minimum. A gain of a single seat was almost wildly optimistic; picking up two seemingly unrealistic.

But just as important as the overall gain was the nature of the new class of Democrats sworn in to the Senate last week. With the addition of Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy, and the possibility of Barney Frank joining them for a few key months and being followed by Ed Markey, the Senate has seen an infusion of liberal talent. Thanks to an impressive class of 2006 (Ben Cardin, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Claire McCaskill, Amy Klobuchar, and Sheldon Whitehouse all were reelected last fall) and the class of 2008, including Mark and Tom Udall, Jeff Merkley, Michael Bennet, and Al Franken, the Senate has a core of assertive, brainy liberals greater than we have seen in decades.

The Senate in our lifetimes has had two previous golden eras for liberals. Energized by the 1958 Democratic landslide that brought in Gene McCarthy, Harrison Williams, Ed Muskie, Ernest Gruening and Phil Hart, among others, the early 1960s was a time of liberal giants. Besides this group, we had Warren Magnuson, Wayne Morse, Hubert Humphrey, Paul Douglas, Albert Gore Sr., JFK, Joe Clark, Ralph Yarborough and, added in 1964, RFK.  The 1974 Watergate election brought the Senate John Culver, Dale Bumpers, Gary Hart, and Pat Leahy. They joined an all-star group that included George McGovern, Dan Inouye, Birch Bayh, Walter Mondale, Alan Cranston, Jim Abourezk and Hubert Humphrey in his second go-round in the Senate.

Ira Shapiro, in his wonderful book, The Last Great Senate, describes some of these men and the impact they had. Some, like Morse, Joe Clark, and Abourezk, were complete iconoclasts, driving Senate leaders, including their own, batty, and often doing the same with presidents. Others, like Magnuson, Mondale, Muskie, Bayh, and Bumpers, were consummate insiders, able to use their leverage in the body to accomplish policy goals consistent with their policy beliefs. Some, like Humphrey, Paul Douglas, and Phil Hart, were simply forces of nature, with the intellect, personal integrity and personal force that transcended policy differences and moved their colleagues and outsiders alike. Humphrey, whom I knew well, was a remarkable and unique human being; he would have made a marvelous president. Unlike Hubert, Phil Hart was understated and soft-spoken, but his impact on the Senate was made clear when his former colleagues named one of their three office buildings after him.

To be sure, those earlier eras were unlike our own; the Senate was less partisan and at least somewhat more open to compromise. But on the most difficult and divisive issues, from Vietnam to civil rights to poverty and hunger, these liberals moved the nation and shaped the policy agenda and environment.

In the old days, we used to define senators as “minnows” or “whales.” It is not clear that the current dysfunctional political environment is conducive to a large pod of whales; minnowization is a depressing fact of political life. But the new liberal base has a slew of people who remind me of their predecessors in their passion, intelligence, persistence, and, for many, grasp of how the Senate works. There are iconoclasts like Sanders and Brown, articulate and hard-charging newcomers in Warren and Baldwin, smart and savvy younger members like Whitehouse, Klobuchar, Bennet, the Udalls, and Franken, and consummate insiders like Cardin. They are joined by senior liberal powerhouses, like Barbara Boxer, Barbara Mikulski, Patty Murray, Pat Leahy, and Carl Levin, who chair powerful committees and enjoy wider respect in the body, and party leaders like Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer, to make a veritable Murderers’ Row on the Left. If Markey, one of the smartest and most effective members of the House for decades, joins them, it is like adding a future Hall-of-Famer to an already-strong team.

The Senate, if it works and passes important legislation, will operate from the center out, and moderates have their own impressive contingent, ranging from Mark Warner and Bob Casey to newcomers like Angus King, Martin Heinrich, and Joe Donnelly. And Harry Reid will have his hands full not just reconciling moderate and liberal views but in keeping some semblance of unity among the liberals themselves. At the same time, this group of strong-willed and ideologically determined liberals will not be pushovers for President Barack Obama and the policies of his administration. However it works, the infusion of new talent combined with seasoned veterans makes the 113th Senate a new and dynamic vessel for liberal aspirations.