McCain, Obama, and national service

MCCAIN, OBAMA, AND NATIONAL SERVICE…. Seven years ago, right here in the Washington Monthly, John McCain wrote a terrific piece on national service programs. McCain conceded that he’d been skeptical when President Clinton had proposed the AmeriCorps program, but he’d become a convert. “If we are to have a resurgence of patriotic service in this country, then programs like AmeriCorps must be expanded and changed in ways that inspire the nation,” McCain wrote at the time.

This is worth considering in more detail now because tomorrow, John McCain and Barack Obama will appear together to discuss their views on “service and civic engagement in the post-9/11 world,” in a primetime forum in New York, hosted by ServiceNation, a coalition focused on civic engagement. The candidates will appear separately at the event, called “A Nation Of Service.”

While any forum with both presidential hopefuls is bound to be interesting, this event should be especially informative, in large part because McCain has no national service agenda.

There was a point, after McCain’s piece appeared in the Monthly, that he was the go-to Republican on issues of national service. He not only took the issue seriously, McCain made a deliberate effort to lead on national service, and incorporate the very idea into his political worldview.

And then he decided he wanted to be the Republican nominee for president. While Barack Obama has emphasized national service, and presented an ambitious and detailed policy agenda on how an Obama administration would expand service opportunities, Ben Adler recently reported that McCain “has yet to offer any proposals to expand or transform national service outside of the military.” The issue has gone from the centerpiece of McCain’s domestic political philosophy to less than an afterthought.

Paul Glastris, the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, explained in our most recent issue:

McCain incorporated his ideas on national service into legislation he co-sponsored with Senator Evan Bayh. And for a while, he fought for that legislation. But in recent years his enthusiasm for the subject seems to have waned. Maybe it’s frustration with President Bush, who made bold promises after 9/11 to expand national service but did not break a fingernail in pursuit of that goal. Maybe it’s the fact that McCain decided to make another run for the White House and needed the support of small-government conservatives, many of whom loathe AmeriCorps.

Whatever the reason, the Arizona senator has spent this presidential season eloquently exhorting young people to “serve a cause higher than self” while studiously avoiding mention of any new measures to create more opportunities for such service. He took a weeklong “Service to America” speaking tour this spring, during which he said nothing about national service. His website is bereft of information on the subject. When reporters ask his campaign for anything in writing on the candidate’s national service agenda, they are sent copies of his 2001 Washington Monthly article.

As a matter of national policy, this is regrettable. America faces a growing list of unmet domestic needs — from weatherizing low-income homes to helping the elderly with daily chores to help them stay out of nursing homes — that neither the private sector nor traditional public sector bureaucracies are set up to solve. The only sensible way to deal with these vital needs is through a mobilization of volunteers empowered by the federal government. America also faces an overwhelming foreign policy need: to reclaim our good name, and with it some measure of the power we’ve lost. As Kenneth Ballen writes in this issue (“Bin Laden’s Soft Support“), the quickest and easiest way to enhance our image overseas, even among the world’s most alienated Muslims, would be a massive campaign of humanitarian aid delivered not by faceless agencies but by Americans themselves, be they from the military, the Peace Corps, or some other entity yet to be created.

While McCain has gone silent on national service, his opponent has been speaking up. In an address last December, Barack Obama unveiled a plan to triple AmeriCorps, double the Peace Corps, expand service opportunities for middle-aged and older Americans, turn a quarter of all college work-study jobs into community service positions, and offer a $4,000 tuition tax credit to anyone who completes one hundred hours of service. He expanded on these ideas in a much-celebrated commencement address this spring at Wesleyan College.

I suspect, McCain will pay lip service tomorrow night to the notion of public service, but it’s likely to be hollow rhetoric. What matters is McCain’s commitment, not just to showing up at an event on 9/11, but in presenting policy changes, vowing to put resources and political capital behind service policy ideas, and backing up proposals with policy specifics — just as Obama has done.

At this point, it seems as if McCain has given up on the issue altogether. It’s yet another reminder of the differences between the old McCain and the man we see running for president today.