Enough with the "Money Primary" Let's Move on to the Big Ideas Primary

04/07/2007 04:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This past week, the political establishment has been obsessing over who "won" and who "lost" stage one of the so-called "money primary." But the first incumbent-free presidential election in 55 years should first and foremost be about ideas and leadership. Money buys organization, but voters want a candidate prepared to take America forward - someone who has come to grips with the unique historical times we live in, and laid out a vision, backed by a bold, specific agenda, ready to face the challenges and seize the opportunities facing America and the world.

Three months from now are we going to go through this all again when the second quarter fundraising tallies are in? Shouldn't we all now move on from the "money primary" to the "primary of ideas"?

One idea that has been missing in the debate so far, could transform America -- voluntary universal national service.

By the time the next President takes office, we will have had 20 years of bipartisan commitment to national service. Over that time, a quiet service revolution has taken root. Americans of all ages are volunteering in record numbers, 65.4 million in 2005 up from 59.5 million in 2002. This May, AmeriCorps will enroll its 500,000th member, and more than 187,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps. These programs are so popular that every year thousands of volunteers have to be turned away.

The response to 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, showcased the true spirit of America as ordinary citizens spontaneously rallied to donate billions, give blood and help rebuild shattered homes and lives. It is time to unleash this powerful desire to serve-- our greatest natural renewable resource--by making service opportunities universal.

Already, service programs are having a significant impact. In one five-year period, AmeriCorps volunteers tutored 4.4 million children, built 11,000 homes, shepherded 1 million children into after school programs, and assisted 2.5 million senior citizens. Studies have shown that Americans who serve are more likely to vote, volunteer, and contribute to causes.

Eighty-two percent of college-age Americans believe that service is an effective way to solve important issues facing their communities. Our youngest voters get this. What about our next president?

All of the candidates will undoubtedly talk about the need to unite America and unleash its idealistic spirit, but will they propose anything bold and specific to take this service revolution to scale?

How about a new voluntary Universal Service GI Bill? After World War II, the GI Bill redefined America by helping millions of veterans get a college education, buy homes, and start businesses. It turned out to be one of the best investments America ever made, delivering an estimated $7 in economic benefits for every dollar spent, drawing veterans into the civic life of the nation they had shed blood for, and helping drive the inequality gap to its lowest point in the 20 th century.

A new GI Bill for service would produce similar results by calling on all young people to volunteer to serve their country for at least one year. It would be voluntary in that each person would choose whether or not to serve. But it would be universal in that everyone who desired to serve would have an opportunity to do so. And with a strong, new "Uncle Sam Needs You" campaign, the expectation that each citizen should contribute something back to their community and country would be meaningful and palpable.

This new GI Bill would offer a wide array of service opportunities: from the Armed Forces, to AmeriCorps, to the Peace Corps. Those who chose military service would boost military recruiting and help relieve the pressure for repeated deployments now overwhelming military families.

An expanded AmeriCorps, from 75,000 to one million, could supplement first-responders during national emergencies, and help close the gaps in our social safety net: immunizing at-risk children, providing safe after school opportunities, preserving our environment, spreading literacy, and improving education for our children.

A Peace Corps 100,000 members strong (up from the current 7500) could rebuild international goodwill while immersing Americans in the wisdom and subtleties of multiple cultures.

In return, for every year of full-time service, young Americans would receive a service award equal to one year of tuition, room, and board at a public university. It could be used at any school they choose public or private, or towards a down payment on a home, to secure a bank loan to start a business, or to match private sector donations to start a non-profit. Want to give and earn more? Serve more, up to four years. The American dream of a college education, home ownership, or becoming an entrepreneur would be made real for any citizen who is willing to earn it through service.

Consider how a new Universal Service GI Bill could reunite our nation while instilling an ethic of shared sacrifice and civic responsibility. Think of how a million new young volunteers a year - just one in four graduating high school seniors -- could transform our communities at home and our image abroad. Imagine how in the words of Langston Hughes, we would "Let America be America again."

So can we please stop talking about the "money race" and instead focus on the big ideas needed to transform America?