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Why don’t candidates ask us for more than our votes?

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win....”

— John F. Kennedy, 1962

WHAT WOULD we do if one among the horde of candidates seeking to become president of the United States in 2009 challenged us as a nation to do something hard?

Most Americans alive today can’t remember a president or would-be president doing anything remotely like that. The ones we’re used to are all about what they’re going to do for us, not what we should do for our country. Republicans want to cut our taxes; Democrats want to give us more programs and, to hear them all talk, at no cost to us.

But I believe that if the cause were worthwhile and the proposal made sense, we’d rise to it. Maybe not all of us, but there’s a critical mass out here who would follow someone courageous enough to ask us to do our part.

I, for one, am sick of being treated, by people who seek my vote, as some sort of “gimme-gimme” baby, lacking in any sense of responsibility for the world around me. Those of us who are grownups are used to accepting, in our personal lives, challenges that are by no means easy to meet — going to work day after day, paying our bills, raising children. Why would we not understand a president who said, “Here’s a challenge that concerns us all, and here’s what each of us needs to do to rise to it”?

Young people among us want to pitch in and accomplish difficult things a lot more than we give them credit for. Part of Barack Obama’s appeal among the young is his call to service, his challenge to build a better nation. But unless I’ve missed it, he has not asked us, as a nation, to do anything hard.

Don’t misunderstand me, as did a colleague who wrote:

The feeling I get... is that you’re so frustrated that you just want the government to demand SOME SORT OF SACRIFICE, on something, anything. Whether it’s needed or not. Doesn’t really matter what.

Well, yes and no. Sure, there’s a part of me that just wants to be asked for a change to do something, if only for the novelty: Buy bonds, save scrap metal, whatever.

But there’s more to it than that. The truth is, our country faces a lot of challenges that demand something or other from all of us, but political “leaders” have a pathological fear of pointing it out to us.

Back when JFK challenged us to go to the moon because it was hard, we did it — even though there was no practical reason why we needed to do so. Sure, it gave us the creeps to think of “going to sleep by the light of a communist moon,” but it was a symbolic competition, with only marginal applications to the true, deadly competition of the arms race. We couldn’t stand not to be No. 1.

But today we have very real, very practical challenges that have tangible consequences if we fail to meet them.

Take just one of them: our dependence on foreign oil.

Sen. Joe Biden had a great speech a while back about how President Bush missed the golden opportunity to ask us, on Sept. 12, 2001, to do whatever it took to free us from this devil’s bargain whereby we are funding people who want to destroy us and all that we cherish. And yet, his own energy proposals are a tepid combination of expanding alternative fuels (good news to the farmer) and improving fuel efficiency (let’s put the onus on Detroit).

A broad spectrum of thinkers who are not running for office — from Tom Friedman to Robert Samuelson to Charles Krauthammer — say we must jack up the price of gasoline with a tax increase, to cut demand and fund the search for alternatives. It makes sense. But the next candidate with the guts to ask us to pay more at the pump will be the first.

My friend Samuel Tenenbaum is on a quixotic quest to build support for restoration of the 55-mph speed limit. It would be hard (for me, anyway), but the benefits are undeniable. It would conserve fuel dramatically, starving petrodictators from Hugo Chavez to Vladimir Putin to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It would save thousands of lives now lost to speed on our highways.

Samuel pitches his idea to every candidate he can corner. They smile and move away from him as quickly as possible.

But you know, when I wrote a column a while back proposing the creation of an Energy Party — that would among other things demand that we jack up the gas tax by $2 a gallon (to fund an Apollo-style project on alternatives), institute Samuel’s 55-mph limit, ban SUVs for anyone without a proven “life-or-death need to drive one” and build nuclear power plants as fast as we can — I got a surprising number of positive responses. I think that was less because my respondents thought those were all good ideas. I think they just liked the idea of being asked to do something for a change.

Energy independence is just the start. Add to it the urgent needs to stop global warming, win the war on terror, make health care affordable while at the same time avoiding the coming entitlements train wreck, and you’ve got a list of things that require a lot more audience involvement — and yes, sacrifice — than our current candidates have been willing to ask us for.

And while you may not feel the same, I’m dying to be asked. Not because it would be easy, and not even because it would be hard, but because these hard things actually need doing.

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