The 1 question Democratic debate contenders should be asked

Getty Images

Twenty Democratic candidates for the presidency will appear in Miami tonight and Thursday to answer questions in the opening debates of the 2020 presidential campaign. We all know that they agree on the need to get rid of the current occupant of that office. There is little to distinguish their policy platforms.

A few are to the left of center, a few to the right. A few are young, inexperienced candidates; a few are older and more experienced. They are men and women of different colors and ethnicities. They come from big states and small states, urban and rural.

This round of Democratic debates will focus on what the state owes its citizens — things like health care, education, tax relief and unlimited security. But the question I would like to hear our current candidates answer is, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, “What can you do for your country?” 

None of the candidates have a public record on the subject, so they will have to think on their feet. Their responses should be revealing. And the subject is one the country needs to ponder.

What is their position on uniform national service in which every young man and woman (including newly sworn-in immigrant citizens) serve their country for a year before beginning their higher education or careers?

Some might serve in the military, others in carefully crafted and monitored service in the national interest, in the public or private sectors. Their work would depend on their interests and skills: If you’re a musician, then play in the national orchestra. If you’re an athlete, compete in the country’s public sports contests. Vocational training in useful jobs would be available for those who are not academically inclined. The military would offer good preparation for many youngsters.

Why not have every high school graduate or 18-year-old who is not in school be assigned a job in the range of their young interests and according to their country’s needs? Pay them modestly. Train them.

Importantly, there would be no exceptions. You have bone spurs? There is a sitting job for you.

Such a program can bolster public works, such as infrastructure repairs, recruiting and preparing military enlistees, and ensuring that everyone serves their country in some job before moving on to their careers.

I went to college when many older veterans were returning to school on the GI Bill. Some returned with families, but all were older and more mature than their classmates. All were serious about their studies, better prepared to take advantage of higher education and thrive in their careers.

Such national service could provide today’s young people with a sense of a patriotism — just as it did for me, after a three-year stint in the Air Force — that this generation may never feel if the idea of service is simply theoretical. Only if all of them have served, shared an important experience, been introduced to a wider world of their fellow citizens, will that happen.

Israel has such a requirement — two years for young women, three years for men — and it binds them, trains them, and provides a small nation with a young workforce better prepared for whatever comes next.

Uniform national service is not rich or poor, urban or rural, Democratic or Republican, left or right. The Clinton administration tried a model, AmeriCorps, under the direction of former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.). It was the kind of vocational and bonding success that the Peace Corps generated decades earlier under Sargent Shriver.

The costs would be a wise investment, involving about 4 million 18-year-olds. Those who share that experience will appreciate their country all the more by having had a personal investment in it.

The New York Times Magazine conducts an online survey of more than 4,000 subscribers every week. Last July its editors asked: “Do you think one year of public service should be mandatory for all Americans?” The results: 15 percent had no opinion; 12 percent said “no”; 73 percent responded “yes.”

Let’s ask the candidates that question.

Mandatory public service is what all Americans owe their fellow citizens. Whenever I hear the public tell members of the military, “Thank you for your service,” I think: If only that recognition were earned not only by those heroic warriors but by every member of the next generation.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington attorney, author and literary agent who worked in the Department of Justice as a special assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and as a speechwriter for Kennedy’s U.S. Senate campaign in New York. He has written 13 books and more than 400 articles.

Tags 2020 Democratic debates GI Bill John F. Kennedy National service

More Campaign News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video