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 WarrenTrump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash Ocasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment Ocasio-Cortez tweets endorsement of Sanders MORE) and the "political revolution" Bernie SandersBernie SandersOcasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment Ocasio-Cortez tweets endorsement of Sanders Ocasio-Cortez throws support to Sanders at Queens rally 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 BidenCNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview Yang cautions Democrats: Impeachment might not be 'successful' Ocasio-Cortez: Sanders' heart attack was a 'gut check' moment MORE, Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSenate Democrats want Warren to talk costs on 'Medicare for All' Sanders seeks spark from Ocasio-Cortez at Queens rally Biden seeks to fundraise off fact he's running out of money 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 HarrisKamala Harris reacts to supporter who got tattoo of her handwriting Even with likely Trump impeachment, Democrats face uphill climb to win presidency Harris campaign releases web video highlighting opposition to death penalty 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 BennetSenate Democrats want Warren to talk costs on 'Medicare for All' The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges Bennet reintroduces bill to ban lawmakers from becoming lobbyists 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.