NEW YORK. — New York -- I give a lot of speeches, and answer a lot of questions after them, and I have always been surprised after an hour of relatively dispassionate analysis of the American condition, by how seldom I am asked: ''What would you do?'' Is it because of kindness? Boredom? Despair?
But after weeks of audience leniency, someone did ask me that after a recent speech. And I said:
* Make the federal income tax more progressive -- again.
* Bring the troops home from Europe and put the money saved into elementary and secondary education.
* Subsidize higher education, public and private, so students could again work their way through college.
* Create a national health-insurance plan open to anyone who knows the Pledge of Allegiance.
* Work to repeal the Second Amendment, then put people in jail for, say, 10 years for illegal possession of handguns and assault weapons.
Guns and education got the applause. On the education answers, people responded more than once. They applauded as I rambled on, saying we need vocational schools again, an idea I got from my wife, who believes education must be tied more closely to contemporary economic realities, and that it is time to generate some national respect for people whose work doesn't require credit cards and cellular telephones.
They clapped, too, when I said that I thought the biggest difference in my America and my children's was that when I was young an American could make enough money (working summers and part time) to pay for college. No more.
I am not a politician, but I have been around them long enough to know that they function as walking applause meters. What gets cheers, they say again -- and, sometimes, even do. Thinking about the cheers I heard, it seemed to me that Americans want a social contract again, beginning with reasonable protection against violence, universal access to decent education and to health insurance, and a guarantee of all the education a man or a woman can handle.
None of those social clauses exist in the current contract between the United States of America and its people. We, in effect, are living in a Third World country -- not a developing country, but one that seems to be deliberately un-developing.
Many Americans have lost sight of what this country is for. To those who say the world doesn't owe you a living -- I would say it sure as hell does! What is a country good for if not to provide a decent living for its people? Perhaps the time has come for the great unorganized majority of Americans to ask not what they can do for their country but what their country can do for them.
The breaking of the contract was from the top down. President Ronald Reagan was the most significant clause-breaker, encouraging much of the nation to organize into grabby little self-interest groups -- and grabbier big self-interest groups.
The low point of this presidential campaign so far, I think, came during Bill Clinton's appearance a couple of weeks ago before the American Association of Retired People. This is what Mr. Clinton's applause meter told him that day: They cheered and cheered when he said that as president he would never cut Social Security benefits, blah, blah, blah. They sat on their hands, just stared at him, when he said it was also time for more attention (and more money) for public education and for early education programs like Head Start.
The AARP is the most powerful single lobby in the United States now. It is also the second-largest membership group in the country -- with dues-paying members second only to the Roman Catholic Church.
It's a wonderful example of the good old American talent for organizing -- AARP came into power after older Americans were being squeezed out of the social contract in the late 1960s -- but it is also an example of the new tunnel-vision self-interest that is destroying contract and community in the United States. Everywhere in the country, there are AARP members and political-action committees arguing, either publicly or privately, that senior citizens should not have to pay for the education of another generation of other people's children -- particularly, it seems, if those other people are poor, black or brown.
We've paid our dues, say those patriots of a certain age, winter soldiers now. No, you haven't! This is a lifetime contract -- or we're all finished. My guess is that if Bill Clinton, the underrated Democrat, can define a commitment, his commitment, to a new American social contract -- what the country owes us and what we owe it -- he will be the next president of the United States.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.