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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 WarrenCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Democrats have turned solidly against gas tax Overnight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 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 SandersCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay 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 HarrisThe U.S. and Mexico must revamp institutions supporting their joint efforts Harris signals a potential breakthrough in US-Mexico cooperation Watch live: Harris delivers remarks on vaccination efforts 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 DelaneyLobbying world Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings 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'RourkeO'Rourke considering Texas governor bid: report O'Rourke clarifies remarks, leaves door open to gubernatorial bid O'Rourke says he's not planning on run for Texas governor 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 InsleeBeyond California, a record year for recalls Seattle is first major US city to see 70 percent of residents fully vaccinated, mayor says Rivers, hydropower and climate resilience 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 Biden 64 percent of Iowans say 'time for someone else' to hold Grassley's Senate seat: poll Philadelphia shooting leaves 2 dead, injures toddler Ron Johnson booed at Juneteenth celebration in Wisconsin 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 TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care 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.