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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, in Washington, D.C.The Associated Press

The United States reached peak political polarization this week, with Washington paralyzed by a shutdown and buzzing with open talk of impeachment. The place is a hornet’s nest. And yet two prominent American politicians have waded right into the heart of it in recent days.

Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, announced Monday she will seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. She is the most serious candidate to date to do so.

A day later, Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee who lost the 2012 election to Barack Obama, and who will be sworn into the U.S. Senate on Thursday, published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that was daringly critical of U.S. President Donald Trump. Mr. Trump’s “conduct over the past two years … is evidence that the President has not risen to the mantle of the office,” he apostatized.

Mr. Romney says he isn’t after the Republican nomination in 2020, but the op-ed is being widely read as serving notice that he is considering a run – regardless of whether Mr. Trump is available for the job.

It’s heartening that people are willing to throw themselves into the relentless crossfire of personal attack and partisan cheap shot that American political ambition brings with it. Their willingness to do so is a reminder that Mr. Trump will not be the last president; someone will replace him, and the American political system will renew itself.

But it is less encouraging to realize that the primary campaigns, and the election itself, will be utterly defined by Mr. Trump. You can see it already in some of the things leading Republicans and Democrats have been saying.

Mr. Romney, for instance, made sure to sweeten his criticism of Mr. Trump with praise for his policies. “He was right to align U.S. corporate taxes with those of global competitors, to strip out excessive regulations, to crack down on China’s unfair trade practices, to reform criminal justice and to appoint conservative judges,” he wrote.

More tellingly, he didn’t mention the turmoil in the White House that has seen Mr. Trump lose or fire multiple senior advisers and cabinet members. He did not raise Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns or to divest himself of his business interests. And he didn’t even hint at the Mueller investigation into collusion with Russian election interference, or the Trump associates who have been convicted of crimes.

He didn’t touch those subjects because Mr. Trump remains immensely popular with the Republican base and has defined those issues as a partisan “witch hunt.”

Mr. Romney, like so many other Republicans, doesn’t dare join the chorus calling for congressional investigations and, possibly, impeachment. Instead, he focused on the President’s failure to "unite us and inspire us to follow ‘our better angels’ ” – a weak argument for replacing a popular incumbent who won his party the White House.

Ms. Warren, meanwhile, is as much a populist as Mr. Trump. She complains of an American economy “rigged against working people,” thanks in part to free-trade deals that benefit the wealthy. Her words are similar to those Mr. Trump used to charm the American Rust Belt’s working class.

If the Democrats want to win in 2020, their best chance to do so may be on Mr. Trump’s terms – by wooing white and middle-aged swing voters in states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Iowa.

The Democrats scored a major success in the fall’s midterm elections, regaining control of the House of Representatives and electing record numbers of people of colour and young people in safe Democratic areas. But the party’s new majority is in fact built on wins in districts that went for Mr. Trump in 2016. They were captured by candidates whose campaigns were designed to appeal to local swing voters more than to the Democratic Party’s traditional base. A lot of Democrats want to focus on the latter group in 2020, but Mr. Trump’s success in Middle America, along with the realities of the electoral map, could deny them that option.

Mr. Trump has also defined the terms of the debate over the Mexican border. No Republican dares contradict him, while the Democrats, Ms. Warren included, have allowed themselves to be so polarized by the President’s excesses that they no longer have a coherent plan for dealing with the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States.

Like it or not, Mr. Trump has already set the rules for a U.S. election campaign that starts now.

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