Last night, however, McCain and Barack Obama appeared at a nationally-televised forum, hosted by ServiceNation, a coalition focused on civic engagement, to discuss their views on "service and civic engagement in the post-9/11 world." And wouldn't you know it, McCain told the group and the audience precisely what they wanted to hear. Steve Waldman explained:
The big news at the "Service Nation" joint appearance of John McCain and Barack Obama was not what they disagreed on but what they agreed on: both supported colossal increases in the size of full-time civilian national service opportunities.McCain noted that he's proposed legislation with Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, to increase AmeriCorps, the community service program, from 75,000 up to 250,000 a year. Obama has proposed a similar increase. So whichever candidate wins, AmeriCorps may more than triple in size. What's more, both men yesterday endorsed a new bill about to be introduced jointly by Sen. Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch to create more service opportunities.
The main differences between Obama and McCain were the level of detail. Obama has comprehensive plan and talked about several elements, such as a Veterans Service Corps to help veterans re-assimilate and an Energy Corps to help fuel energy independence. McCain was vague but left no doubt that, unlike some other conservatives, he supports a major government role in creating civilian service opportunities. "AmeriCorps has been one of the astonishing successes," he said.
Indeed, McCain wanted to present himself as an entirely different person from the senator we've seen over the last couple of years. The national service bill McCain championed seven years ago, but recently blew off? Wouldn't you know it, he supports it again. The community organizers his convention trashed last week? Wouldn't you know it, now McCain loves community organizers.
Given this, McCain's remarks came across as hollow. He rediscovered the issue of national service, but apparently only because he'd accepted an invitation to appear at a forum on national service. There's still no indication that McCain is prepared to back up his new-found interest with policy specifics or political capital.
Obama, in contrast, demonstrated a real passion for the issue, and backed up his talk with specific proposals for "a $3.5 billion National Service Plan to sponsor volunteerism, a $4,000 tuition credit to college students who agree to do community service after graduation and a Clean Energy Corps." Obama seemed to mean it, and speak from personal experience, when he explained how and why the government can play a key role in leading people into community service. "We need an all hands on deck approach," he said. "I believe firmly that government should expand avenues of opportunity."
It was encouraging, I suppose, to hear both candidates agree on the significance of national service, but only one of the two seemed prepared to make an actual commitment, bolstered by specific details.