We said something relatively nice yesterday about the president-elect’s incoming chief of staff, but there’s no way to sugar-coat one of the less appealing items on the Illinois congressman’s record: his vocal advocacy of mandatory national service. From his 2006 book The Plan: Big Ideas for America, co-authored with Bruce Reed, currently the #1 selling book in several political categories at Amazon and #91 overall:
It’s time for a real Patriot Act that brings out the patriot in all of us. We propose universal civilian service for every young American. Under this plan, All Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five will be asked to serve their country by going through three months of basic training, civil defense preparation and community service.
(J.D. Tuccille, “Obama’s chief of staff choice favors compulsory universal service”, Examiner, Nov. 6).
Some think we’re being alarmist in wanting to know more about the episode late last week (blogged here, here, and here) in which the Obama transition site posted (and soon thereafter silently retracted by alteration) a policy statement indicating that its plan would require participation in community service. After all, pointed out one correspondent, the issue had come up repeatedly before the election, and the Obama campaign had given assurances then its plan wasn’t going to be compulsory. What were the odds it would introduce a major policy change so quickly and stealthily after winning? Unfortunately, that doesn’t put an end to the issue. As everyone knows, all winning candidates pay concessionary lip service during campaigns to views that their key people may not share in private (cf. Goolsbee and NAFTA). Those discrepancies often foreshadow later deviations of policy from the line taken during the campaign. We may hope last week’s web posting reflected nothing more than a staff mix-up, quickly corrected, as opposed to some staffer’s relaying in all innocence a view of the issue formed by listening to internal campaign discussions. But wouldn’t it be better if the transition itself went public with such a reassurance?
He’s oh-so-dismissive of John Derbyshire for overreacting to an Obama national service plan that (in Smith’s words) “is, whatever its merits, voluntary”. His commenters pile on. Meanwhile, Smith completely misses the actual news of the day on the subject, namely that the Obama transition team’s Change.gov website flatly endorsed a mandatory, not voluntary plan, and then silently edited (and later yanked) its language when bloggers noticed. How misleading is it to describe Derbyshire as reacting to a voluntary plan when he was quite patently reacting to the sudden prospect of a mandatory one? And Andrew Sullivan was unfair and misleading in the same way.
Ben Smith writes for one of the hottest news operations around, which means he’s well situated to start digging for questions you’d think almost any reporter would want to ask about this episode: who drafted or approved the first version, the one that got edited before being yanked? Was it some staffer misinformed about the genuine thinking of the Obama team, which would make the later editing a relatively conventional (if covert) effort to correct a mistake? Or did the language reflect actual thinking that the Obama team has not yet seen fit to share with the public? I certainly hope it was the former and am by no means ready to jump to the latter conclusion. But wouldn’t it be nice if our press corps took an interest in shedding light on such questions? (& welcome Coyote readers).
Quite an eventful night here: after Glenn Reynolds linked to my item on the Obama transition website and the plans it outlined for mandatory national service, upwards of five thousand visitors read the item and, as I’ve noted in an addendum, the people at Change.gov silently edited the passage in question to replace the controversial “require” language with vaguer talk of a “goal”. (Update Sun. morning: and now they seem to have yanked “Agenda” entirely).
Also, my thanks to commenters for their patience. I went out for an evening in the city and when I got back there were seventy comments in the moderation queue. I approved the whole batch, but inevitably there was one reader who was sure he was being singled out when his comment (#19) didn’t appear after an hour or two. (Update: thanks for correction.)
Well, that didn’t take long. Coyote spots language on the Obama transition site that seems to make explicit what was left studiously vague during the campaign:
Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year.
Update 12:15 a.m. Saturday: After my post was linked by Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit (thanks!) and began drawing thousands of visitors, the Obama website administrators at change.gov silently replaced the “require” language with something new and different:
Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by setting a goal that all middle school and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year and by developing a plan so that all college students who conduct 100 hours of community service receive a universal and fully refundable tax credit ensuring that the first $4,000 of their college education is completely free.
Robert Bidinotto noted the switch and Mike LaSalle saved the original page as a PDF for those who didn’t see it the first time. Glenn Reynolds did a second post taking note of the substitution and quoting the witty comment of reader Nancy Anne Potts: “Looks like the change.gov site is true to its title – it changes!” More: Acre of Independence. Update Monday: transition yanks entire “Agenda” from web, this section and others.
Can we make “nonexistent” one of the options?
P.S. Relatedly, or not, Democratic candidate Obama has called for making women register for the draft.
Whatever this group “Service Nation” is all about, it sure isn’t liberty. Jim Lindgren has their number (Volokh Conspiracy, several recent posts; Coyote; Althouse).
But see: the organization now denies (Somin @ Volokh) that its agenda includes mandatory national service, despite the goal recently listed on its website (now removed) of “Launch[ing] a debate about why and how America should become a nation of universal national service by 2020.”