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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 WarrenOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Buttigieg calls Warren 'evasive' on Medicare for all Sanders hits 1 million donors 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 SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Krystal Ball calls on Sanders to follow Yang's lead on war on drugs Buttigieg calls Warren 'evasive' on Medicare for all 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 HarrisTwo former Congressional Black Caucus chairmen back Biden Strippers, 'Hustlers' and the Democratic debates 2020 Dems honor Emily Clyburn 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 DelaneyWilliamson: Climate change result of an 'amoral' economic system The Hill Interview: Sanford says Trump GOP doing 'serious brand destruction' Krystal Ball: Reality debunks Biden's 'Medicare for all' smear 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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'RourkeOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Fox's Ed Henry to Trump: 'Are you willing to stand up to the NRA?' Sanders, Yang to miss CNN's town hall on LGBTQ issues 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: Trump officials formally revoke California emissions waiver | EPA's Wheeler dodges questions about targeting San Francisco over homelessness | 2020 Dems duke it out at second climate forum Yang floats nominating Inslee as 'climate czar' The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate 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 clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it Trump whistleblower complaint involves Ukraine: report 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 TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it 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.