Let's hope Democratic candidates resist following Trump's example

Let's hope Democratic candidates resist following Trump's example
© Greg Nash

After the reverse Robin Hood policies of the Trump years — taking from the have-nots and giving to the haves —Democrats have a remarkably robust agenda if they take power.

The party's presidential candidates are proposing a huge expansion in health care benefits, federal subsidies for free tuition at public colleges, a national day-care plan, a commitment to provide millions of jobs, and massive climate change investments among others.

This all would be financed by trillions of dollars of tax increases, almost exclusively on the rich and corporations.

It doesn't add up substantively and probably not politically. It's not unusual — early in the presidential primary cycle — to over promise.

At some stage some reasonable priorities and parameters may start to take shape.

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There are non-starters: a single payer government health care plan that eliminates private insurance, and the Green New Deal, which promises to add millions of federal jobs and rather vague but zealously aggressive climate change goals.

Likewise, some of the tax proposals that command popular support face considerable obstacles. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay: AP Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk MORE has proposed a 2 percent annual tax on all individual wealth over $50 million. It hasn't worked in most European countries that have tried it; there are legal challenges, and annual valuations could prove complicated.

Bernie SandersBernie SandersGillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay: AP MORE wants a huge hike on the estate tax with a rate as high as 77 percent on the super-rich. The Republicans have outrageously rewarded wealthy heirs. But experience shows that influential political donors from both parties usually sabotage efforts to toughen the estate tax. That might be the case too in slapping stiff taxes on financial transactions.

Everyone wants tax cuts for lower- and middle-income families. A centerpiece of California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSan Francisco police chief apologizes for raid on journalist's home Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk MORE's agenda is a genuine middle-class tax cut that would cost as much as $2.8 trillion over a decade.

It would replace the Trump tax cut, skewed to the upper income and corporations. But the revenue loss, under Harris’s plan, would be greater and might crowd out other domestic spending initiatives.

There is no shortage of those. On health care, the alternatives to a single payer include more generous subsidies for Obamacare and a public option for those not covered by Medicare; even former Maryland Congressman John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyOvernight Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan CNN's O'Rourke town hall finishes behind Fox News, MSNBC MORE, probably the most conservative Democratic aspirant, favors a public option. The cost would depend on how it's phased in and the coverage, but it wouldn't be cheap in the short run.

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On education, Sanders, Warren and others are pushing subsidies for free tuition at public colleges and universities. The Sanders free college notion would cost $750 billion, with states supposed to pick up one-third. Warren has an ambitious federally subsidized day care plan that would benefit 12 million children and increase standards, but would cost an estimated $700 billion over ten years.

There's a consensus among major presidential hopefuls that climate change is an existential threat, and they may compete to out-do each other. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeButtiegieg backs NFL players' right to protest during anthem: I 'put my life on the line to defend' that Overnight Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan CNN's O'Rourke town hall finishes behind Fox News, MSNBC MORE launched a $5 trillion initiative that would be leveraged with $1.5 trillion of federal monies over ten years. Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeOvernight Energy: Democrats push EPA to collect 4K in 'excessive' Pruitt travel expenses | Greens angered over new rules for rocket fuel chemical | Inslee to join youth climate strikers in Las Vegas Inslee hits 65,000 donor threshold for primary debate Inslee says he'll join youth climate strikers in Las Vegas MORE has tried to make this his issue and won't likely be outdone.

Nobody is rushing yet to embrace a carbon tax or big increase in the federal gasoline tax, though many experts argue these should be central for climate change policy and to help finance a big infrastructure plan, which would include not just traditional transportation projects but monies to assure that rural and poorer communities have high grade internet capabilities.

Some of this will become more clear when the debates start next month. Soon former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani meets with former Ukrainian diplomat to get info on Dems Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE, the front runner, will have to start weighing in on his spending and tax priorities. That will help shape the agenda.

The poor and struggling working class have significant unmet needs; many of these liberal proposals have merit. In the real world, most have to be scaled back.

The worst case would be to replicate 2016.

Candidate Donald Trump promised he would slash taxes, boost defense spending and not touch Social Security and Medicare — promises he has largely kept. He also vowed to cut the deficit and be on the way to eliminating the national debt. Under President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE, the annual deficit is expected to grow by almost half a trillion dollars from the end of the Obama Administration. Not only is the debt not being eliminated, it is expected to rise by $5 trillion.

The unfortunate lesson Democrats might be tempted to take is that duplicity and false promises work.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.