Burden in tonight's debate is on Democratic realists

Burden in tonight's debate is on Democratic realists
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Those in the Democrats' left wing have skillfully defined the narrative in the party's presidential contest, as a choice between "big structural change" (in the words of Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial MORE) and the "political revolution" Bernie SandersBernie SandersKaine: Obama called Trump a 'fascist' during 2016 campaign Des Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters MORE espouses on the one hand — versus small bore, incremental changes on the other.

The burden starting with the Democrats third presidential debate tonight, is on the mainstream progressives like Joe BidenJoe BidenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters George Conway: Witness missing from impeachment trial is Trump MORE, Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Candidates weighing using private jets to get to Iowa Biden nabs endorsement from Iowa Democrat in swing district MORE and a few others to counter that the real choice is between an ambitious and decidedly liberal agenda, such as they are proposing on health care, taxes, climate change and other issues versus an unrealistic left-wing wish list.

They've done a lousy job so far in making this case, but they have two calling cards.

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One is factual: The initiatives put forth by Biden and others are far more progressive than incremental and, according to the polls and  the 2018 election results, more in sync with most Democratic rank and  file voters.

On health care they need to point out that the choice is between significantly expanding the Affordable Health Care Act — ObamaCare — or killing it, and going back to the drawing board to try to fashion and pass the single-payer, totally government-run plan advocated by Vermont Sen. Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Warren. The former Vice President, opposing the Medicare-for-all Sanders-Warren plan that would do away with private insurance, is pushing a "public option," that would enable all non-seniors to buy into a public plan that would compete with private insurance.

This plan, similar to a number of other candidates, would expand ObamaCare subsidies to lower income families and crack down on soaring drug prices.

You can argue the merits, but these are really significant expansions of ObamaCare, not small bore.

It's the same picture with taxes — which will have to be substantially increased in any Democratic Administration. Sanders would tax most anything that moves, a 70 percent top rate (up from 37 percent) on the very rich and even a middle-class tax hike to help pay for his government health care plan. Warren proposes a 2 percent tax on all wealth over $50 million and 3 percent over a billion.

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The more moderate Democrats, while, while not raising anything like the massive revenue under the Warren or Sanders plans, are advocating the most sweeping and progressive tax changes in memory: taxing capital gains at the ordinary income rates; significantly increasing in the estate tax for wealthy heirs; raising corporate taxes and the individual top rate; and closing loopholes, especially those created by the 20017 Trump tax cut.

There are different ideas like a financial transaction tax. California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris on 2020 endorsement: 'I am not thinking about it right now' Panel: Is Kamala Harris a hypocrite for mulling a Joe Biden endorsement? The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power MORE wants a 0.2 percent tax on stock trades, a 0.1 percent tax on bond trades, and a smaller levy on derivative transactions.

On climate change there has been a discernible lurch to the left reflecting the severity of the problem and the total inattention of the Trump Administration. Warren, Sanders and a few others have embraced the “Green New Deal” package which promises fossil fuel free energy in a decade, along with a guaranteed good paying job, universal health care coverage and other benefits.

But environmentalists like Obama's Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz and science adviser John Holdren say that's not realistic; given the necessary trade-offs it might be politically painful in next November's election.

Most all the other candidates are offering very ambitious, less costly proposals, that envision renewable zero emissions a decade or two later. And Buttigieg, the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is one of the few to put forth one of most sensible notions: a tax on carbon.

On education Warren and Sanders get a lot of attention with proposals for tuition-free education at public universities and to forgive nearly all student loan debt.

Yet, as Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell has written, these goodies — she was writing specifically about  Warren's proposals — "give bigger benefits to higher income families than to lower income ones that actually need the help. Free college," Rampell notes, "means it's free for Bill Gate's kids  too."

More constructive are educational investments targeted to those most in need. That's the approach of Colorado Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial Impeachment throws curveball in Iowa to sidelined senators Sanders says it's 'disappointing' he's not on campaign trail in Iowa MORE, not on the debate stage tonight, but still the most thoughtful realist in the field. He starts off with major increases in funding for lower- and middle-income three- and four-year-old children, where many less affluent kids often start to fall further behind, and would almost double the $2,000 refundable child tax credit for families with young kids. Bennet wants the federal government to generously increase Pell grants for college education, while capping student debt repayment at 8 percent of income — as well as a major focus on worker retraining and community college for those who can't afford it.

There's another point that somehow should be in this debate. For all the importance Democrats attach to electability — beating Trump — maybe just as important is governability: the ability to actually get things done if elected. This is where the Bidens and Bennets have a case that is missing for Warren and Sanders.

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.