WASHINGTON -- Nothing received a more positive crowd reaction during last year's presidential campaign, especially on college campuses, than Bill Clinton's proposal for national service as a means to put young America through college.
The scheme, given its send-off yesterday by President Clinton at Rutgers University, is a sort of marriage of the education provision of the World War II G.I. Bill of Rights and President John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps. College loans are to be made available to all comers, to be paid back after graduation either in installments at income-tax filing time or by serving two years of military or community service.
Such service, Clinton said at Rutgers as he did throughout the campaign, could be in police work, teaching, nursing, child care, working with the homeless or other activities deemed constructive at the community level. The plan, he said as a candidate, would educate a whole generation and "it would be the best money we ever spent."
To hear Clinton talk during the campaign, it sounded as if he intended to make the program available in a full-blown fashion from the start, with any high-school graduate able to get a college loan. But the budget realities have obliged him to reduce the national service scheme basically to a pilot project at the outset, spending $15 million in the first year's stimulus package to create 1,000 community service jobs -- a decision that has already brought criticism.
Clinton, to be sure, did first peddle the idea as an all-out, do-it-now project, in the process generating anticipation of a "domestic peace corps" that overnight would reawaken the best instincts for self-improvement and public service among young Americans. But the important point is that he has not abandoned the plan as too ambitious and at least is trying to make a start at it, planning eventually to spend $7.5 billion over five years.
It is doubtful that this "domestic peace corps" idea in itself played a pivotal role in Clinton's election. It was not, as he himself acknowledged to campaign aides at the time, the kind of issue that would determine what voters did in the polling booth. But along with another favorite Clinton idea not likely to be a strong vote-getter -- making "deadbeat dads" pay for child care -- it did help set the central tone that Clinton wanted to convey about his prospective presidency: that of opportunity and responsibility.
Clinton has placed the national service plan in the hands of Eli Segal, his campaign chief of staff in Little Rock. The plan is another example of Clinton's penchant for taking other people's ideas and building on them. In 1988, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had a somewhat similar idea for universal college training to be repaid after graduation. Adam Walinsky, a former Robert F. Kennedy speech writer, has long advocated a "police corps" along similar lines.
Although Clinton's national service plan didn't win the election for him, it does come at a time when the middle class to whom he reached out so conspicuously in the campaign is particularly concerned about educating the next generation.
Campaign strategists for former President George Bush, in election post-mortems, observed that the recession that brought Bush down was different in that it hit white-collar, middle-class voters much harder than in past recessions that had hurt blue-collar workers most.
Middle-aged voters with large home mortgages and huge college tuition bills were losing their jobs or fearful of losing them in a recession marked not simply by temporary layoffs but also by wholesale elimination of jobs. The national service scheme thus has timely appeal not only to prospective college students but to their parents as well.
It may be some time, however, before it is clear whether there will be much political payoff for Clinton in whole idea. The real test of its success or failure won't come at least until the first college class under the plan is graduated and selects the options for community service. By that time, Clinton will be in his second term -- or a private citizen.
As a campaign proposal, the idea was attractive because it addressed a middle-class worry in terms of community needs. Now the idea must stand a more rigorous test in the implementation.