The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

For two nights, Democratic presidential candidates served up a smorgasbord of ideas that will most likely define the party’s mission in the years to come.

Democratic core issues of climate change, gun control, abortion rights and immigration were front and center. But the agenda of the party’s progressive wing — government-run single-payer health care and tuition-free public colleges — got an airing, too.

It was nice to hear a lively ideological debate on the values that could steer the Democratic Party four to eight years down the road. The smart and thought-provoking debates reminded us of what we have missed during Donald Trump’s presidency — intelligent conversation about the future of our country.

But these are not the issues Democrats should be focusing on in 2020. They can debate the party’s long-term goals as much as they want two years from now, but only one question matters in the upcoming election: Who can beat Trump?

Getting Trump out of the White House is the top priority of the more liberal Democratic base. Many centrist voters, independents and moderate Republicans agree with them. The challenge is wading through this diverse pool of contenders and figuring out which of them has the best chance of winning.

What some Democrats seem to forget is that it will take a coalition of voters from a lot of different backgrounds to succeed in the general election. Liberals will have to join forces with farmers in Ohio, steelworkers in Pennsylvania and blue-collar workers in Michigan, some of whom went for Trump in 2016.

It is a safe bet that these swing voters, many of them former Democrats, aren’t as interested in breaking up Google, Facebook and Amazon as they are in earning livable wages so they don’t have to work two jobs in order to put food on the table.

As the election approaches, Democrats have found themselves in the precarious position that Republicans struggled with for decades. There are, in effect, two Democratic parties at play — a centrist wing and a progressive wing — that strongly disagree on where the party should be headed.

There probably aren’t many people out there who wouldn’t like free college tuition for their kids, having their student loan debt erased and receiving free or low-cost health care. But those kinds of progressive proposals come with a price tag. In some cases, the middle class could end up paying more in taxes to cover the costs.

That’s where progressive Democrats and other voters part ways — and it could be just the opening Trump needs to squeeze through to a second term.

It became painfully obvious during the debates that some of the contenders are stuck in a time warp, harking back to the pre-Trump era when party platforms decided presidential elections.

But campaign rules of engagement have changed since 2016. The most important decision Democrats will have to make is deciding which candidate has what it takes to go up against Trump and win.

There are things to admire about a lot of the contenders and they shone brightly during the debates. Elizabeth Warren was concise and smart. Kamala Harris impressively cut through the minutiae and went straight to the heart of the issues. Bernie Sanders reminded us of the inequities of a capitalistic society. Joe Biden held his own as an experienced statesman. And Julián Castro’s knowledge of immigration policy was astounding.

Even if a Democrat does defeat Trump, the progressive proposals spouted by candidates such as Warren and Sanders have no chance of seeing the light of day unless Democrats miraculously pull off a landslide in the Senate as well. And even then, there would be a major fight within the party.

Smart voters know that anybody who promises to deliver such things are being dishonest, to put it mildly. It’s never going to happen as long as Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is in charge of the Senate.

Democrats have to drive home the point that this particular presidential election isn’t about finally getting the chance to make America more progressive; it’s about stopping the runaway train of right-wing conservatism that Trump has embraced.

This race is about choosing between right and wrong. It’s about putting an end to inhumane practices that land migrant children in detention centers without toothbrushes and proper supervision. It is about helping diabetics who cannot afford insulin and keeping money in the pocketbooks of hardworking Americans.

But most importantly, this election is about putting an end to the terrifying reign of a ruthless president who thinks he is above the law.

Copyright 2019 Tribune Content Agency.