With a 2020 presidential field as large as the Democrats’, coming up with “signature” policy ideas can be tough, particularly with two candidates deciding to run basically single-issue crusades (Jay Inslee on climate change and Eric Swalwell on gun safety), and another having patented some attractive initiatives in 2016 (Bernie Sanders with Medicare for All and free college tuition). Still, Cory Booker’s got his “baby bonds,” and Kamala Harris her teacher pay plan, and Elizabeth Warren has an entire suite of policies based on her vow to fight corporate consolidation.
South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg has been fairly clear about his determination to build a campaign around his personality and his “narrative” understanding of the challenges facing the country before descending into much policy detail, and it’s worked well for him so far. But he has laid claim to one venerable Democratic policy idea that reinforces the communitarian themes he has been articulating: national service. Politico has the story:
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on Monday night advocated a form of national public service for all young adults as a way to create unity among Americans.
“We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era,” the mayor of South Bend, Ind., told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it, if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody after they’re 18 spends a year in national service.”
Actually, a much less visible candidate, John Delaney, recently rolled out a detailed plan to create a comprehensive national service program, including a “Climate Corps” to work on green energy projects around the country. At this point Buttigieg is not being that specific, though like most national service proponents in the post-draft era, he’s eschewing the idea of mandatory service.
Both Delaney and Buttigieg are drawing on a tradition that goes back at least to FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, and was given fresh life in the 1960s when JFK created the Peace Corps and then LBJ launched a domestic counterpart, VISTA.
Various ideas aimed at expanding opportunities for civilian national service (sometimes with a military option) circulated in the 1980s, before George H.W. Bush, who had a noblesse oblige habit of disparaging compensated service as too mercenary, began his decentralized Points of Light initiative focused on occasional voluntary efforts rather than the FDR/Kennedy/LBJ approach of multiple years of full-time paid service coordinated as a national program. Poppy did, however, sign legislation creating a variety of national and community service demonstration programs, including some full-time models. And that, in turn, flowered under Bill Clinton.
Clinton made national service (an idea constantly promoted by the Democratic Leadership Council which he chaired before running for president) a signature initiative of his 1992 presidential campaign; it nicely reinforced the “community” portion of his “opportunity, responsibility, community” meta-message. He also adopted the DLC’s emphasis on the value of a large, GI Bill–type post-service educational benefit to deal with rising college costs. Taking office during a debt-and-deficit panic, and facing the traditional conservative resistance to compensated service, Clinton was nonetheless able during his first year to get a relatively small program called AmeriCorps off the ground.
While AmeriCorps (which absorbed VISTA and encompassed part-time as well as full-time service) never achieved anything like the scale its designers imagined, it survived frequent congressional Republican attempts in the 1990s to kill it as a Clinton vanity project. After 9/11, George W. Bush temporarily embraced national service, devoting a significant portion of his 2002 State of the Union address to the topic, but largely shirking it for the rest of his presidency (he did help revive bipartisan support for AmeriCorps, though, and Congress boosted its funding north of $900 million by the end of his first term). Then Barack Obama made an ambitious effort to expand AmeriCorps to 200,000 full-time participants, but again, Republican opposition and funding limitations kept it to around 80,000. In her 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton revived a family tradition by proposing a large, hybrid expansion of full-time compensated and part-time uncompensated service. She would have tripled the size of AmeriCorps and doubled the post-service educational benefit it offered. Like so many other initiatives, this one died with her campaign; the Trump administration has sought to eliminate funding for AmeriCorps altogether.
Presumably any Democrat who is elected president will at least let AmeriCorps limp along as a worthy if limited effort. But the possibility of taking it to the kind of scale that the Clintons envisioned will probably depend on the enthusiasm of candidates like Buttigieg (and possibly Delaney, though you’d have to give him a much smaller chance of becoming viable than Mayor Pete). It’s a classic triple-play politically: offering an ethic of service to country that Democrats sometimes struggle to authentically promote; a hands-on, community-focused way to deal with entrenched social problems; and a limited but robust contribution to the ability of young people to afford college. In 1992, Clinton used to say that talking about national service was his most reliable applause line, to the surprise of many of his advisers. It could be a winner again, or at least a signature.