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A shift toward the realists in the race

By STEPHEN STROMBERG | THE WASHINGTON POST Published: December 20, 2019

LOS ANGELES

For much of the Democratic presidential race, an obstreperous left wing defined the contest. Thursday’s debate showed that this has changed.

Not long ago, it was unclear whether a Democratic candidate would be viable without embracing progressive activists’ demands for Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren rose in the polls as she proposed policy after policy, each seemingly more immoderate than the last. The race seemed to be slipping into a deadly spiral for the Democratic Party, in which candidates proposed increasingly extreme policies to out-progressive each other.

Instead, those in the race speaking up for realism calculated that the candidates on the left had overreached. They were right. These realists have become more prominent, and they have grown into the spotlight.

As the debate began, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar offered the best answer on impeachment. Rather than just assuming that those watching agreed that President Donald Trump deserves to be impeached, as the other candidates did, she stayed on point, making the case for indicting the president.

“This is a global Watergate,” she explained. “In the case of Watergate, a paranoid president facing election looked for dirt on a political opponent. He did it by getting people to break in. This president did it by calling a foreign leader to look for dirt on a political opponent.” She pointed out that even President Richard M. Nixon allowed his aides to testify, calling on acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton to appear before Congress. Providing detailed and substantive answers delivered with increasing poise, Klobuchar has done better every debate.

Next, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders embarrassed himself by explaining that the trade agreement with Canada and Mexico that Congress is considering would make some small improvements — which is why he opposing it. Others onstage declined to make perfect the enemy of the good.

Then came the most illustrative philosophical contrast of the evening, on taxes, between Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Moderator Judy Woodruff asked Warren to respond to economists who warn that her plan to enact the biggest tax hike since World War II would hurt the economy.

“Oh, they’re just wrong,” she said flippantly. Warren argued that investing in education, child care and other government services would help the economy, which is not the point. The question is whether the growth-slowing effects of hiking taxes as high and in the manner she suggests would swamp the stimulative effects of the spending she proposes. Economists — and not just right-wing, partisan economists — have increasingly raised the alarm about Warren’s program.

Buttigieg responded:

“I think we’re being offered a false choice that you either have to go all the way to the extreme or it’s business as usual. Yes, we must deliver big ideas and, yes, taxes on wealthy individuals and on corporations are going to have to go up.

“We can also be smart about the promises we’re making, make sure they’re promises that we can keep without the kind of taxation that economists tell us could hurt the economy.

“It’s why, for example, I’ve proposed that we make college free for 80 percent of Americans. But it doesn’t have to be free for the top. If you’re in that top 10 percent, how about you pay your own tuition and we save those dollars for something else that we could spend them on that would make a big difference, whether it’s infrastructure, child care, housing, health?

“On issue after issue, we’ve got to break out of the Washington mindset that measures the bigness of an idea by how many trillions of dollars it adds to the budget or the boldness of an idea by how many fellow Americans it can antagonize.”

Klobuchar summed up this approach later on, as the candidates yelled at one another about health care: “You can be progressive and practical at the same time,” she said. She should have expanded: It is more progressive to be practical, because, as Buttigieg explained, that is the best way to ensure the government has the resources to invest in progressive priorities.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the other relative moderate onstage, was more inert. In fact, Buttigieg by far drew the most fire from the other candidates, because of his rising polling numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. As much as anything else, that is a measure of how the intellectual tenor of the race has shifted toward the realists.

Stephen Stromberg is a Washington Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.

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