Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 10, 2008

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.

Steve Benen 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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Ya know along with his flip-flopper ways I think there is another tale to tell about McCain, that being his short attention span. It seems like he occasionally gets behind important legislation and then loses interest if he does not win right away.

John McCain... for Country First... until something else bright and shiny comes along...

Posted by: Ramon on September 10, 2008 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

Ok, well Obama's entire agenda isn't devoted towards national service, so this makes him no better than McCain who only pays lip service to national service. So while it's technically true that Obama's plan does more for national service, neither candidate has a perfect record.

Wow, false equivalency is easy and fun! I'm ready for my column now, Washington Post.

Posted by: Doctor Biobrain on September 10, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

Every one of Steve's articles today has added to my level of disgust and scorn for the amerikan public and the corporate news media.

It has become increasely impossible to pretend that the republicans and the McBush campaign give a damn about the truth. With their 'he said - he said' mentality, the corporate media is an enormous enabler of the disregard for truth and facts.

As we go forth into the remainder of this election cycle, we see another dumbocrap candidate smeared by lies and on the defensive. We see the amerikan public convinced that the rethug lies are either the truth or 'both sides lie' so they will overlook the McCrap lies.

As we go forward this fall with a 'culture & personality' campaign again bought into by the corporate media, issues again not even be considered by large portions of the amerikan public. When half the amerikan public are convinced that it is sexist to question anything about Palin, why should I have any confidence that we are not going to have another Bush presidency and more wars? When half the amerikan public believes that questioning McSame about issues is questioning his patriotism, why should I have any confidence that we are not going to have another Bush presidency and more economic suffering for the american people?

My level of disgust for the corporate media continues to rise! My level of disgust for the amerikan public continues to rise! If Obama actually believes that the amerikan public is not stupid, he is badly mistaken.

I continue to believe that the republican owned corporate media will push the meme that this is a close election and, once again, the republican owned corporations that the electronic voting and tabulating systems will steal another election for the rethug candidate.

While I continue to be sad for my country, my anger and disgust with her populace continues to rise!

Posted by: AngryOldVet on September 10, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

Let's not forget Giuliani's and Palin's mocking disdain for Obama's previous work as a community organizer.

Republicans love national service! They just make fun of the people who actually do it!

Posted by: David Bailey on September 10, 2008 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

AngryOldVet: (psst-vote the net)( I'm old, a vet, and only slightly pissed)

Posted by: Mike Meyer on September 10, 2008 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

No worries - McCain will just steal Obama's plan and call it his own tomorrow.

Posted by: Jason on September 10, 2008 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

Don't lose heart. The difference this year is that the GOP is being called on the bs that has slipped through the cracks in prior years. There has been a LOT of media pushback this week and it will drive narratives for the remainder of the campaign.

Obama appears to be fairly strategic; his pattern appears to be that he waits for the GOP to commit to a sleazy line of attack, and then counter-punch strongly. While this is somewhat reactive, it also boxes in the Republicans in ways that demonstrate the idiocy of their attacks. With MSM scrutiny, the narrative shifts to McCain/GOP tactics rather than the charges themselves. It will work over time as the narrative gets set. Our job is to keep pointing out the truth and not lose heart. Fight hard, use harsh descriptive language to challenge the bs and don't fear the bastards.

Posted by: danimal on September 10, 2008 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

With regard to love of country and appropriate responses to 9/11, I encourage everyone to read "Three Cups of Tea" http://www.amazon.com/Three-Cups-Tea-Mission-Promote/dp/0143038257/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1221065420&sr=8-1

It's the story of mountain climber turned philanthropist Greg Mortenson's efforts to build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It had me crying. If there is any rational, effective, and beneficial response to Muslim extremism - this is it.

Posted by: jeffreyleonard on September 10, 2008 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

McCain has given up on anything of substance because he can't win on substance. He doesn't have any. All he's got left is sleaze and his mud will splatter him badly. The man is trashing any vestige of honor he retained after becoming a venal politician.

Posted by: janinsanfran on September 10, 2008 at 12:55 PM | PERMALINK

Steve... Just a thanks for a thread that isn't about Palin and is back to the two MAIN candidates!

Posted by: pencarrow on September 10, 2008 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

A few years back I read "Special Providence" by Walter Russell Meade (I have no clue about his politics...regardless, they didn't shine through) and was struck by just how active and vocal the missionary community was in the 19th Century.

Now I don't think I agree with their beliefs (Mormons in China IIRC), but the fact remains that in the 1800s there was a vibrant devotion to volunteer service - especially in the religious community.

Ever since I heard Obama's idea for lowering tuition for those who volunteer I thought it was a fantastic platform, one that could prove to be a real winner with moderate religious types. I wonder, has he and his campaign been highlighting this plank to those groups? It fits right in with the whole idea of active faith.

Posted by: neilt on September 10, 2008 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Tomorrow's event would be a great time to work in a few sneering remarks about "community organizers."

Posted by: vinnie on September 10, 2008 at 1:01 PM | PERMALINK
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.

This is standard McCain. Make a big hoopla over some issue, find some bi-partisan support, wait for the media to pick up on the maverickyness of it, then either don't support it or just actively campaign/vote against it. McCain's done this with immigration, global warming, campaign finance, the list goes on. The man is a fraud.

Posted by: tom.a on September 10, 2008 at 1:02 PM | PERMALINK

Patriotic service means different things to different people. For me it means helping soldiers go AWOL.

Posted by: Brojo on September 10, 2008 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

We already saw what the Republicans think about community service. They dripped with sarcasm throughout their convention. It was a disgusting display.

Jon Stewart said it best when they,at the convention, had up hundreds of signs which read SERVICE in large letters; they were simply paging the wait staff.

Their hypocrisy knows no bounds.

Posted by: MsJoanne on September 10, 2008 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

I think we can begin to describe McCain as being a "phony". Phony outrage, phony VP pick, phony issues, you name it.

The guy who takes so much pride in being genuine, simply isn't. And if the media were ever to catch on to that in a serious way, it'd be bye bye McCain.

Posted by: Jake on September 10, 2008 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans are by nature skeptical of public service for a number of reasons:

1] Sounds communist
2] Sounds New Deal-y [and you know what a flop THAT was]
3] Robs multinational corporations of privatizable service programs [read: easy access to your tax dollars]
4] Makes no reference to "God, guns or guts"
5] John McCain was a fucking POW. How's THAT for public service?!

Posted by: chrenson on September 10, 2008 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

Obama better start playing dirty or the election is lost.

Posted by: gorp on September 10, 2008 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

"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."

Of course he does... Mock those that actually provide that service unless there is political gain to be made.

Posted by: nukev on September 10, 2008 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

Right, we want communism where the people are subservient to the "state." Maybe even a return to slavery where we have involuntary servitude in the form of mandatory "service."

I got news for you commies. The government is supposed to serve the people, not the other way around. We pay taxes and jerks like Obama and McCain are supposed to work for us, not the other way around.

Posted by: Luther on September 10, 2008 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah Luther,

You're soooo right when you said "The government is supposed to serve the people, not the other way around"

Right on! To think otherwise is fucking Commie Bullshit! USA! USA!

Just like when that Commie wimp Kennedy said "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country".

What a loser.

Posted by: neilt on September 10, 2008 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

Luther - take your tricycle & go play on the freeway...

Posted by: AngryOldVet on September 10, 2008 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

It's endlessly amusing when the John Birchers that make up the modern Republican Party display their ridiculous obsession with Communism.

It has Luther so deranged that he doesn't get that "The government is supposed to serve the people" is the entire point of national service.


Posted by: Gregory on September 10, 2008 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

"Maybe even a return to slavery where we have involuntary servitude in the form of mandatory "service."

So, my Grandpa was a slave of the US government during World War II?

Funny, I always thought he was an infantryman the Philippines.

Posted by: 2Manchu on September 10, 2008 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

The forum tonight with Obama and McCain will be streamed live

The Service Nation blog is a good source of info as well.

Posted by: Roon on September 11, 2008 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK



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