Tuesday, October 09, 2007

On More Than Just Baby Bonds, Clinton Disappoints

For a while there, I was beginning to believe Hillary Clinton was a good choice for the Democratic nomination. But a small little story published today about her shifting position on "baby bonds" speaks volumes about her fecklessness, her political unreliability, and even the quality of her judgment.

For the majority of people who are probably unaware of what the "baby bond" idea is and anything about Hillary's position on the subject, here's a quick recap. A few months ago, Time magazine ran a much-discussed cover story about the future of National Service in America, and issued a ten-point plan for making it a defining characteristic of our national life (a goal which, as an AmeriCorps Member, I most whole-heartedly endorse). Of these goals, one of the most innovative an exciting is to set aside a $5000 for every child born in America, that will accrue interest at an average rate of about 7% and be accessible by the individual after they turn 18 if an only if they do a year of national service. Currently, AmeriCorps members receive a $4725 educational stipend at the end of their year of service that can only be out toward education. The baby bond initiative would take roughly the same amount of money and put it as a kind of "down-payment" on every American citizens future. It would create a tremendous incentive for our citizens to serve their country, and the bonds of those who reject service will be returned to the Treasury.

I think this would be an ingenious way to invest in our people, encourage national service, and bring Americans together in a way that will strengthen our communities and better the civic life of our nation. Which is why I got so excited when just a few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton spoke openly about her support for a baby bond program at a Congressional Black Caucus forum, saying, "I like the idea of giving every baby born in America a $5,000 account that will grow over time. So, when that young person turns 18, if they have finished high school, they will be able to access it to go to college or maybe they will be able to put that down payment on their first home, or go into business."

At the time, I was excited about the prospect of the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination speaking publicly about an idea I support, but I was also troubled to a certain extent by the missing tie to national service. In Clinton’s words, Time’s carefully constructed baby bond program for National Service was turned into another automatic entitlement. It lost all sense of social responsibility, and I believe it is for this reason that even Democrats polled week rejected the idea, with 38% in favor and 47% opposed. However, I tried to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt; obviously, I thought, she knew that the idea for baby bonds was intimately connected to the dire need to engage our citizens in national service, and thus remained both heartened by the boldness of her words and enthusiastic about her future endorsement of this wonderful initiative.

How quickly I was proven wrong. Only weeks after rolling out the baby bonds idea, Hillary caved to political pressure from Republicans and poll numbers suggesting Americans weren’t enthusiastic about the baby bonds idea. So, to use the words of a campaign spokesman for John Edwards, “new polling data seems to have pressured the Clinton campaign to throw out the baby bond with the bathwater.” She’s ditched the baby bond idea and is now testing out an idea for helping people put money into their 401(k) accounts, for retirement.

Sadly, all this shifting on a proposal she herself introduced only a few weeks ago seems to confirm the fact that Hillary Clinton is a political opportunist who will pursue whatever the polls tell her is right, and even worse, will favor timid, incrementalist approaches to government that will fail to assertively fix the many challenges we face as a nation. Of course if Hillary gets the nomination, Democrats should support her - I’m not saying she’s worse than any single Republican running - but right now, at primary season, I suggest we all take a long hard look at Hillary Clinton, and decide if she, and not Obama, Edwards or even Richardson, would really be the best choice to nominate in 2008.

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