Sacrifice: Why McCain Is Losing

A good example of why John McCain is losing this race came tonight when a “child of the Depression” asked both candidates about what Americans needed to sacrifice. McCain spoke first and gave a dry answer about cutting spending and programs. Barack Obama gave a deeper answer referencing the way President Bush squandered America’s spirit of unity after September 11th. He then talked about the need for National Service and its appeal to young people — an answer that drew positive responses from CNN’s group of undecided voters. When the question came back to McCain, he returned to the subject of Obama and taxes.

This was more than a missed opportunity for McCain, one of the leading Republican proponents of national service. Obama’s answer was exactly what McCain was saying about Americans and sacrifice in 2001. Back then, McCain gave a major speech on national service to the national gathering of City Year. That same year he sponsored national service legislation and promoted it again in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It’s unbelievable that McCain, who is now in the part of the campaign when the candidate is supposed to be capturing the center, ceded this ground to Obama, when he backed national service at a time it faced threat from the Bush Administration.

Here’s what McCain wrote about the issue in the Washington Monthly that year (notice, by the way, McCain’s specific reference to sacrifice.)

America is witnessing a welcome blooming of popular culture chronicling the contributions of the generation that lived through the Depression and vanquished fascism. From Saving Private Ryan to Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation to Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, Americans are hungry to learn about the heroic service of our parents and grandparents. Some of the commentary surrounding this positive trend, however, has been wistful, even pessimistic. While rightly celebrating the feats of the World War II generation, many pundits bemoan the lack of great causes in our day and doubt whether today’s young people would be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to meet such challenges, even if they existed.
I believe these commentators have it wrong. During the last presidential race, I had the privilege of traveling the country and meeting vast numbers of young people. I cannot express how impressed I was. With energy and passion as contagious as it was inspiring, these young Americans confided their dreams and shared their aspirations, not for themselves alone, but for their country. Their attitude should come as no surprise. Though today’s young people, according to polls, have little faith in politics, they are great believers in service. Indeed, they are doing volunteer work in their communities in record numbers—proof that the urge to serve runs especially deep in them. Indeed, most Americans share this impulse, as witnessed after last month’s terrorist attacks, when thousands of Americans lined up to give blood and assist in rescue efforts. It is time we tapped that urge for great national ends.

And it is not true, as the cynics suggest, that our era lacks great causes. Such causes are all around us. Thousands of schools in our poorest neighborhoods are failing their students and cry out for talented teachers. Millions of elderly Americans desperately want to stay in their homes and out of nursing facilities, but cannot do so without help with the small tasks of daily life. More and more of our communities are being devastated by natural disasters. And our men and women in uniform are stretched thin meeting the vital task of keeping the peace in places like Bosnia and Kosovo.

Beyond such concrete needs lies a deeper spiritual crisis within our national culture. Since Watergate, we have witnessed an increased cynicism about our governmental institutions. We see its impact in declining voter participation and apathy about our public life—symptoms of a system that demands reform. But it’s a mistake, I think, to believe that this apathy means Americans do not love their country and aren’t motivated to fix what is wrong. The growth of local volunteerism and the outpouring of sentiment for “the greatest generation” suggest a different explanation: that Americans hunger for patriotic service to the nation, but do not see ways to personally make a difference.

What is lacking today is not a need for patriotic service, nor a willingness to serve, but the opportunity. Indeed, one of the curious truths of our era is that while opportunities to serve ourselves have exploded—with ever-expanding choices of what to buy, where to eat, what to read, watch, or listen to—opportunities to spend some time serving our country have narrowed. The high cost of campaigning keeps many idealistic people from running for public office. Teacher-certification requirements keep talented people out of the classroom. The all-volunteer military is looking for lifers, not those who might want to serve for shorter tours of duty.

The one big exception to this trend is AmeriCorps, the program of national service begun by President Bill Clinton. Since 1994, more than 200,000 Americans have served one-to-two-year stints in AmeriCorps, tutoring school children, building low-income housing, or helping flood-ravaged communities. AmeriCorps members receive a small stipend and $4,725 in college aid for their service. But the real draw is the chance to have an adventure and accomplish something important. And AmeriCorps’ achievements are indeed impressive: thousands of homes constructed; hundreds of thousands of senior citizens assisted to live independently in their own homes; millions of children taught, tutored, or mentored.

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2 Responses to “Sacrifice: Why McCain Is Losing”

  1. MikeBC Says:

    It’s amazing how effective McCain has been in implementing those ideas since 2001. Oh, wait, he hasn’t at all.

  2. ChrisC Says:

    Seth, does this speak to the ‘Maverick’ getting influenced and losing focus to his Republican Party affiliation? It is sad to see if so. Dems vs Rep

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