Out of Control Policy Blog

Public Service: Be Afraid of McCain But Very Afraid of Obama

I concluded in a Wall Street Journal column Monday that, on balance, Obama's public service ideas are scarier than McCain's. Some readers, bloggers and colleagues, whose opinion I respect immensely, thought that I was going much too easy on McCain. After all, McCain has made hectoring Americans to "serve a cause greater than themselves" something of an obsession; he equates military service with patriotism – a posture with more than a whiff of narcissism; and he has denigrated rivals who have chosen to pursue careers in the private sector rather than follow him into the killing fields of unjustified wars.

All true. Let me say at the outset that I feel no love for McCain. To the contrary, I consider it my patriotic duty as a naturalized citizen to not vote for him. I am petrified that Mr. McCaesar will start a war with Mr. AhmedJihad – leading America not to national greatness but to national catastrophe. He'll sell out the few good ideas he has on the domestic front (health care reform, for instance) to buy the political capital he needs for his foreign policy misadventures. So, on the whole, I am persuaded that Obama will do less damage than McCain to this country.

But, on the issue of public service alone, libertarians have more to worry under an Obama than a McCain presidency.

As I noted in my column, Obama wants every public service program that McCain wants, including those pertaining to military service and creating a national civil force – and many, many more. Furthermore, he wants not just to pour taxpayer dollars into these programs, he wants to use the government's might to incentivize them. One example: He will make federal education aid conditional on schools requiring service from kids 11 and older. This crosses a crucial line that hasn't before been crossed: It is one thing for the government to pay for service; it is quite another to require service on the threat of penalty.

There is a quite intensity about Obama that comes out loud and clear when he talks about this subject in his memoirs, speeches, and articles. One gets the distinct impression that this is what makes him tick. Public service is both an existential need and a governing mission for him. His days as a community organizer opened his eyes to the vast gulf between the unfulfilled needs out there and the resources available to meet them. Bridging this gulf is what he wants to do as president. He is not kidding when he says that public service will be the "central cause" of his presidency. His reasonable, low-key manner notwithstanding, he regards extremism on behalf of this cause as no vice.

Another reason to worry more about Obama than McCain on public service is this: Conservatives live off inducing guilt (for instance in pregnant girls and working moms whose last name isn't Palin). Liberals live off feeling guilt. This makes liberals less morally obnoxious – but more politically dangerous. That's because guilt inducement has its limits. After a while, it wears thin. People get turned off and tune out.

This partisan difference is exacerbated by the personal styles of the two candidates: McCain comes across like a reproachful uncle when he talks about sacrifice and service – especially given the backdrop of his own war record. Obama deploys the identical rhetoric and sounds like a cooler, older brother who knows what you are going through and knows how you can salve your conscience. He doesn't judge -- just offers you a way to connect with your better angels; feel better about yourself. It is no coincidence then that while McCain has left the American youth cold, Obama has ignited their imagination. There is nothing that the weeping throngs in Obama's congregation won't do for him. Nowhere they won't go for him. This appeal, I am convinced, will enable Obama to enact much more of his public service agenda than McCain.

Another reason why McCain will be less able to get his way on his grand public service plans if elected is this: Among conservatives, there is a countervailing ideology of limited government. That doesn't mean that McCain won't try to morally bludgeon this wing of his party to get his way. (As my colleague Nick Gillespie reminds, he characterized the denial of $100 million in emergency funding for AmeriCorps as "an attack on things we believe in.") It does, however, mean that he will encounter some resistance.

But there is no similar check within the Democratic Party to Obama's ambitions. It is inherently the party of both Big Government and Do-Gooders. And given that it might well have a filibuster-proof majority in Congress this November, the sky will be the limit for what President Obama will try to accomplish with it.

Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst


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