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Merrick Alpert's money problem

At last night's Democratic Senate debate, when Merrick Alpert and Richard Blumenthal weren't speaking in Spanish, comparing their military credentials or thanking their wives, the candidates occasionally got specific about what they'd actually do if elected to the Senate.

Having entered the evening on a mission to criticize Blumenthal for his lack of boldness, Alpert not surprisingly was thinking and talking big. And he took full advantage of the dark horse exemption in political debating, which allows long-shot challengers to espouse policies that bear no resemblance to anything with any reasonable chance in this universe.

In Alpert's case, the howlers tended to be fiscal, and none more so than his call for $1 trillion of new federal investment in public infrastructure.

To be clear, this is not a crazy idea. There are hordes of wonkish types who have warned for more than a year that the stimulus package the Obama administration passed was too small to shock the economy all the way back to job growth, and others who have specifically said public infrastructure was given short shrift.

But that stimulus package didn't even approach $1 trillion, and it was passed at the brink of a recession that lawmakers in both parties were trying to prevent from becoming much, much worse. It's too kind to say that a proposal from the new junior senator from Connecticut to give stimulus another whirl and round it up to an even trillion while you're at it would be a non-starter. That go-kart doesn't even have an engine in it.

Ditto his proposal to open Medicare to all citizens, which would indeed be a radical change from the status quo, and would also be fabulously expensive and abhorrent to conservatives and Senate moderates. Alpert notably couldn't put a price tag on that proposal, either, saying he would pay for it in part by removing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and cutting the Pentagon budget.

This isn't to say that candidates shouldn't talk about what they want to do in favor of what is seen as politically realistic. If anything, I think reporters and voters alike would rather here more affirmative statements about policy goals from candidates than they would about how each candidate has tried to be "moderate," or "bipartisan." Standing for the fact that you are not seen as standing too far on one side or another doesn't seem like standing for much. (Hello, Evan Bayh.)

But candidates would seem to have an obligation to describe to voters the earth we happen to be trotting around on. And they should keep in mind that someone throwing out dollar figures just because they sound good can come to seem a little silly.

In his avail for the press after the debate, Alpert conceded that some of his proposals could be difficult to pass into law, which is like conceding that Long Island Sound is sometimes damp.

"There's no question there's going to be a battle, but it's a battle I look forward to," he said.

Onward, Quixote. To the windmill.

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