Taking a page from her husband’s playbook, Hillary Clinton used the venerable idea of national service linked to post-service college assistance to appeal to millennials and other civic-minded folk, with a proposal that includes some features that might appeal to Republicans as well.
Millennials themselves won’t remember this, but Bill Clinton made national service a major theme in his 1992 presidential campaign, and managed to create a full-time national-service program, known as AmeriCorps, before Republicans took over Congress and began a guerrilla campaign to kill or at least starve the initiative.
What’s interesting about Clinton’s current proposal is that she seeks to significantly expand AmeriCorps — tripling its size and doubling the post-service education benefit — while directly connecting it to the kind of part-time, uncompensated voluntarism Republicans tend to prefer as an alternative to national service. Her proposed National Service Reserve would mobilize for emergencies or other urgent public priorities up to 5 million Americans, with the expanded AmeriCorps membership deployed to “recruit, train and lead” them. This hybrid approach of full-time and occasional service was endorsed by George W. Bush, who made it the centerpiece of one of his State of the Union addresses, and has won over several other prominent Republicans, notably Colin Powell and John McCain.
This proposal and the themes it allows Clinton to invoke are clearly a twofer in her efforts to drive up her support levels among millennials. The ethic of service is valued highly by young Americans, and a robust post-service educational grant nicely complements Clinton’s other proposals to make college more affordable.
Lord only knows if or how Trump may respond. He has a generation’s worth of conservative smears against AmeriCorps to draw upon, up to and including comparisons to the Hitler Youth (a particularly common if psychotic characterization made when Obama proposed an AmeriCorps expansion). If her proposal becomes a significant moment in the campaign, and she wins, it could either be the basis of a rare bipartisan opportunity in 2017, or another idea for Republicans to demonize because of its doubled-down connection to the Clintons. Any way you look at it, fighting for national service has become something of a family tradition.