John Kerry’s new campaign theme appears to be emerging in one of his signature lines: “Let America be America again.” That’s a good line. It rings with nostalgia sure to appeal to the make-it-all-go-away voters, those who yearn to return to the pre-Sept. 11, 2001, years – as if that’s possible.

It also suggests that we’re not yet ready to hand over our civil liberties to a ruling junta. And it offers a sense of a new start for the nation – but with only a hint of substance, and no grand vision.

This is the weakness of the Kerry presidential campaign; it’s big on soundless bites and small on ideas that capture the imagination.

“What does America do best?” asks Michael Shellenberger, director of the Breakthrough Institute, headquartered in El Cerrito. “We create new industries and lead the world in their development.” We’re also problem solvers, or at least that’s how we like to think of ourselves. Shellenberger is a leader of the Apollo Alliance, a powerful cabal of unlikely allies quietly pushing the Kerry campaign to adopt what may be the best, most timely Big Idea to hit a presidential campaign in decades. The Alliance proposes what it calls a New Apollo Project.

Modeled after John Kennedy’s pledge to put an American on the moon within a decade (which launched the space program) and Dwight Eisenhower’s commitment to building the interstate highway system (which launched suburbia), a New Apollo Project would strive for American energy-independence within a decade.

According to Shellenberger, a national 10-year investment of $30 billion annually (less than what we’re spending on the Iraq War) for alternative energy research and production, mass transit and the required manufacturing and construction, would create more than 3 million good new jobs, rebuild decaying urban centers, restore America’s economic competitiveness globally and reduce the trade and budget deficits.

The notion may sound grandiose, its outcome overblown. But at the very least, such a commitment to energy independence and alternative fuels would tap latent American idealism – and offer a useful vent to our growing frustration. We may be clueless about how to extract ourselves from the current unpleasantness in the Mideast, but here’s something we can do: cut our chains to that troubled region’s oil producers once and for all.

Then, as Kerry promises (without a noticeable plan to back his pledge) never again would an American president feel compelled to send young Americans to die for our right to drive gas-guzzlers.

The political key to Apollo’s potential success is that its proponents are selling it as a jobs program. Leo Gerard, president of United Steel Workers of America, and Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, have thrown their weight behind Apollo, as have 16 of the country’s other big labor unions, along with major environmental groups.

In San Diego, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is “putting together a local and regional version of the Apollo Alliance,” says Allen Shur, business manager for IBEW Local 569. “There are two regional alliances right now; one is in San Francisco, the other is right here. We’re doing a local survey of what industries could be created here in San Diego as part of a New Apollo Project.”

To find out what the Kerry campaign thinks about Apollo, I called two staffers in his Washington, D.C., headquarters – Marco Trbovich, Kerry’s director of labor policy, and Heather Zichal, the campaign’s energy policy director.

“Kerry has endorsed the Apollo Project in principle,” said Trbovich. “There’s real value in the quality and character of the jobs that could be created.” Zichal echoed Trbovich’s praise for Apollo: “What the Alliance has done to bring labor and environmentalists together is amazing.”

Still, though Kerry lacks a compelling way to package his energy and jobs proposals, he has yet to adopt Apollo as a campaign totem. Other sources suggest that the Kerry campaign is unlikely to attach itself to any big idea with such a large price tag.

“Kerry is going to be tagged as a tax-and-spend liberal no matter what he does,” says Shellenberger. “That’s why Apollo should be sold as investment, not as spending.” Theoretically, much of the price tag would be covered by energy savings; eventually, the investment could turn a profit. No need to wait for hydrogen cars; we can retrofit old buildings for energy efficiency immediately, using off-the-shelf technologies.

“A new wave of capital investment to reduce energy demand and deploy state-of-the-art technology in our homes and work places would create an explosion of demand for skilled jobs and manufactured goods,” according to Apollo’s blueprint.

And if we don’t take the lead in the emerging industries and markets for clean technology, someone else will. According to the blueprint, “In just five years the Japanese have increased their market share of solar panels – a technology American companies invented with the help of the federal government – from 25 percent to 50 percent. Europe today dominates 90 percent of wind turbine manufacturing, and this year Japanese automakers Toyota and Honda – which seized the initiative in the hybrid and zero emissions vehicle markets – may become the second and third largest U.S. automakers.”

Our nation is overdue for a great vision. Apollo could be a notion whose time has come. Indeed, seizing such a hopeful idea could be one way that America could be America again.

Louv’s column appears on Sundays. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or via