Politics & Policy

Extinct, in Under Five Years?

In search of the Hyde Park Democrats.

August marks the fifth anniversary of the Hyde Park Declaration. Adopted at FDR’s palatial, Hudson River estate by 85 elected moderate Democrats–including five current U.S. senators–the manifesto set forth the New Democrats’ “statement of principles and … policy agenda for the 21st century.”

The declaration addressed what President Bill Clinton called “the big, long-term challenges the country faces in the new century.” Ambitious? Yes. And five years later, the problems and principles articulated in the document seem as timely as ever.

Indeed, the Hyde Park discussion of Social Security reads like a commentary on this year’s reform efforts. What’s most striking, though, is how closely the New Democrat principles of 2000 jibe with what Republicans propose today.

Consider the Hyde Parkers’ governing principle vis-à-vis Social Security: “We believe in shifting the focus of America’s … social insurance programs from transferring wealth to creating wealth.” President Bush couldn’t have said it better. That’s exactly why he and his allies in Congress have proposed adding personal retirement accounts to the Social Security system: so workers can get a better return on their retirement tax dollars.

Bush and the Hyde Parkers also accept the need to rein in burgeoning costs. “Moreover,” wrote the New Democrats, “the costs of the big entitlements for the elderly–Social Security and Medicare–are growing at rates that will eventually bankrupt them and that could leave little to pay for everything else government does. We can’t just spend our way out of the problem; we must find a way to contain future costs.”

The president and other reformers have put in play a number of cost-containment options, from slowing scheduled benefit increases for wealthy retirees to gradually raising the retirement age. All are in keeping with the New Democrats’ vow to enact “structural reforms” that will restrain the growth in costs and thereby “limit their claim on the working families whose taxes support the programs.” This kind of reform is needed, they declared, to respond to “conditions not envisioned” 70 years ago when FDR created the system.

The Hyde Parkers list three Social Security reform goals for 2010:

‐”Honor our commitment to seniors by ensuring the future solvency of Social Security.

‐”Make structural reforms … that slow … cost growth, modernize benefits … and give beneficiaries more choice and control over their retirement … security.

‐”Create Retirement Savings Accounts to enable low-income Americans to save for their own retirement.”

Newsflash: This agenda is wholly compatible with what many congressional Republicans are pushing today. Consider the most recent proposal out of the GOP: Sen. Jim DeMint’s “Stop the Raid on Social Security” legislation. It would enable workers to deposit their share of surplus Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts, creating real assets that workers could use for their retirement or pass on to their heirs.

The DeMint approach also would block Congress from spending every spare penny in the Social Security trust fund on any and all non-retirement “investments” that suit their fancy. No more would worker’s excess retirement taxes be squandered on everything from mohair subsidies to the Tongass Coast Aquarium in Ketchikan, Alaska. Instead, they would flow into millions of personal Social Security “lock boxes” that workers would own.

Like the initiatives being offered by President Bush, the DeMint proposal comports with Hyde Park principles and policies. So where are the New Democrats in the debate?

Awkwardly, they are marching in lock step with leading liberals in opposing Hyde Park-style reforms.

Five months ago, including all five Hyde Park signatories still serving in the Senate–Indiana’s Evan Bayh, Massachusetts’ John Kerry, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, Connecticut’s Joseph Lieberman and Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln–signed another document. Along with 37 other Senate Democrats, they sent an uncompromising letter to President Bush in which they vowed to oppose any reform plan that creates personal retirement accounts funded with a portion of a worker’s Social Security taxes or includes structural reforms that tinker with Social Security’s guaranteed benefit.

Ironically, the Hyde Park Declaration anticipates the obstructionism that the party’s liberal leadership so openly embraces today. “This is the wrong time in history for politics as usual: for empty partisanship… and for perpetuating the issues and ideologies of an ever-more-distant path,” wrote Lieberman and the other signatories. They further noted:

“As the squire of Hyde Park, Franklin D. Roosevelt, said, ‘New conditions impose new requirements on government and those who conduct government.’ That is why we best honor the true legacy of FDR not by acting as guardians of the dead letter of past progressive achievements, but by living up to the bold, innovative spirit that made those achievements possible.”

Five years later, one can only wonder: Hyde Park Democrats, where are you?

Michael G. Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.


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