When Bill Clinton was campaigning on college campuses and among blue-collar workers last year, no proposal drew greater applause than his plan for what was often called "a domestic Peace Corps." Anyone who wanted to go to college, Clinton implied to his audiences, would be able to earn tuition by giving two years after their schooling to "national service" in some civilian community work -- in teaching, nursing, child or elderly care or police apprenticeship.
The concept appealed not only to students but also to working men and women concerned that they would not have the financial wherewithal to send their kids to college. It was applauded by others as a call for young Americans to start thinking and acting beyond their personal material desires to improving the lives of their fellow citizens.
In short, Clinton's "domestic Peace Corps" had the ring of John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps, which sent thousands of volunteers to the far corners of the globe to help people in underdeveloped countries -- and to spread the image of American democracy and concern. It was obvious that Clinton, often compared with Kennedy, dearly wanted his proposal to be seen in the same light, and himself as another JFK.
Soon after his election, however, the reality of the budget crunch set in. What had been huckstered as a universal program had to be shrunk to a much less ambitious undertaking, offering tuition aid of up to $10,000 to 150,000 applicants over a five-year period. What Clinton really was saying during the campaign, aides said, was that anyone who wanted to go to college was eligible to apply, but the government would only be able to fund a limited number of students.
Clinton, though, continued to mention the program as one of the essential elements in his agenda. At first blush, this "domestic Peace Corps" had the earmarks of an easy winner, an apple-pie idea that would draw bipartisan support. But in the strategy of Senate Republican leader Bob Dole to paint the new president as just another Democratic taxer and spender, national service became another partisan target of filibuster tactics.
Ordinarily you might expect that the scaled-down program would be able to lure enough Republicans to assure quick and routine passage. Instead, the White House has had to consider further ** trimming, in both total spending and time frame. One of the Republicans most favorably disposed to the concept, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, has been pushing to reduce the program essentially to a pilot project, to see whether it works.
The hassle over national service is yet another outcome of a presidential nominee who over-promised during his election campaign and then, once in office, lacked the financial resources in a tight budget and the political clout to follow through on his ambitious proposals.
One of the great values of the Peace Corps to John Kennedy was that it was an inspirational imagination-grabber untinged by self-reward.
Volunteers went to the Third World with no personal payoff beyond a meager salary, a challenging experience and the satisfaction of helping others while making their country look good abroad.
While no participant in Clinton's proposed domestic Peace Corps would get rich, there is an element of self-serving in the tuition component.
Senate Minority Whip Alan Simpson, in his accustomed delicacy, has been asking what ever happened to good old-fashioned American volunteerism, with virtue its own reward?
Clinton as a candidate spoke of the plan as a replacement for the much-criticized student loan program, in which defaults on repayments have been widespread.
Instead, under that program participants will be able to apply the tuition credits to existing student loans, as well as having the option of repaying a loan after graduation with a small percentage of their paychecks over an extended period of time, rather than a fixed repayment amount that many can't afford.
On whatever scale, the success of the program would enhance Clinton's claim to the Kennedy mantle -- one main reason some Republicans would prefer to shelve the whole idea.