Alter: The Case for National Service

In 1992, the biggest applause line in Bill Clinton's stump speech came when he outlined a national-service plan that later became AmeriCorps. So it's surprising that until now no candidate has made service a central part of his or her campaign. President Bush's call for Americans to "go shopping" after 9/11 teed up the issue for Democrats—who may find that the country is more receptive to this idea than they think.

Barack Obama has talked a bit about a "Youth Services Corps" for disadvantaged young people to work on energy-efficiency and environmental-education projects, and John Edwards has a lightly detailed "Marshall Corps" idea to send 10,000 midcareer experts around the world in a combination of the Peace Corps and the Marshall Plan. But those are targeted programs that aren't aimed at a whole generation.

It's Chris Dodd who is taking the service debate to the next level. On Saturday, Dodd will unveil a specific and strikingly ambitious national and international service agenda in a speech on the same spot in Nashua, N.H., where John F. Kennedy began his presidential campaign in 1960. Dodd remains in the second tier of Democratic candidates. But even if he falls short, his national-service idea could catch on. Consider that Kennedy's Peace Corps originated with Hubert Humphrey, one of the men he beat in the 1960 primaries. Similarly, Bush's monumental tax cut was a response to one proposed by also-ran Steve Forbes in the 2000 campaign.

Dodd has long said that that the two years he spent in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic changed his life. In remarks prepared for delivery, he plans to say Saturday that he wants "to rekindle the flame lit in this place with an American Community Initiative that calls once again upon every American to be a part of something larger than themselves …. I want to use the power of the presidency to create the first generation of Americans in history in which everyone will have served their country—40 million Americans by 2020."

Where JFK's Peace Corps and Clinton's AmeriCorps started small, Dodd would mobilize swiftly—and on a grand scale; some proposals that are bound to be controversial. He would elevate the Corporation for National Service, which runs AmeriCorps, to cabinet-level status; expand AmeriCorps from its current level of 70,000 corps members a year to 1 million (with the help of a bigger college-tuition grant) by 2016; double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011; establish a "Rapid Response Reserve Corps" to work alongside first responders in a crisis; offer tax credits of up to $1,000 per worker to employers who offer paid time off for community service, and give seniors incentives to serve with $1,000 grants they can use for their own continuing education or that of a child or grandchild.

The part of the plan that will likely engender the most opposition is Dodd's call for mandatory high-school community service. Schools would be required to have their students to perform 100 hours of community service in order to graduate—or risk losing federal funds. (Most schools don't receive much federal funding now, but they do get some money to offset the testing costs of No Child Left Behind requirements).

The only state currently requiring community service is Maryland. The idea has not caught on elsewhere because schools—and students—don't like to be compelled to act virtuous. But Dodd's idea of a whole generation that performs service as a "rite of passage" does require some kind of kick in the pants to go along with the incentives. His "Summer of Service" component (which would carry with it a $500 college scholarship) would even extend down into middle school.

Even were Dodd to somehow win, the details of any national-service program would inevitably change. His $10 billion price tag (by 2016) will raise hackles, though it's the equivalent of a couple of months in Iraq. The point is to get a conversation going about what Dodd calls the "New American Patriotism"—the latest extension of a spirit of national service that extends back to Franklin Roosevelt and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Now it's up to the other candidates to show how they would, in Dodd's words, "move forward in this new century in common cause and with muscular purpose."