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Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren raise their hands to speak during a debate hosted by CNN and the New York Times, at Otterbein University, in Ohio, on Oct. 15, 2019.John Minchillo/The Associated Press

It may have been a leadership debate with twice as many candidates as in the last Canadian debate, but the Democrats’ forum Tuesday night laid bare the great, fundamental similarity in – and the great, fundamental truth of – the two North American contests: the election is less a clash of ideas than it is a referendum on the sitting leader.

Generally White House elections – even those where the president is seeking a second term, even when his supporters chant ‘’four more years’’ – are not primarily about the incumbent. Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972 was largely about the Vietnam War and his opponent’s plans for a guaranteed minimum income. Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984 was largely about income-tax rates. Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 was largely about the economy and health care.

But – in the conversation at Otterbein University, as at Democratic events in Iowa and New Hampshire – the shadow of President Donald J. Trump looms large over everything the Democrats say and do. Though he was not on the debate stage, the 45th President was front and centre in the debate, as he is in virtually every candidate appearance in the months before the first primary contests.

From the start of the session in Westerville, Ohio, the Democrats’ revulsion at the conduct and policies of Mr. Trump – on taxes, on Turkey, on international alliances – either dominated the conversation or provided a subtle, but unmistakable, theme to the proceedings. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said Mr. Trump “has obstructed justice, and done it repeatedly.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders described Mr. Trump as “the most corrupt president in the history of this country.” And former vice-president Joseph R. Biden Jr. called Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria “the most shameful thing any American president has done, in foreign policy.”

There are, to be sure, important issues at stake in the 2020 election, and the Democratic debate, like candidates’ stump speeches, touched on many of them: health insurance, global climate change, income inequality, the practices of giant tech companies. But the dozen candidates who shared the stage in a state that in U.S. presidential elections since 1896 has voted for the winning candidate every time but twice (1944 and 1960) have very few substantive differences.

Indeed, the nuances that separate the Democratic contenders – the differences that the candidates are emphasizing in their zeal, or desperation, to set themselves apart from their rivals – are in a broad sense meaningless.

Their differences, and the specifics of their plans, would be effaced as a potential Democratic president’s proposals work their way through Congress, which prides itself on its separate but equal role in Washington governance; for generations American pupils in Grade 9 have been taught a simple but enduring precept: the president proposes, Congress disposes.

For that reason, the disparities in the Democratic candidates’ views have importance less as policy positions than as appeals for voter support.

That is why, in a patently rehearsed riff, Senator Kamala Harris of California transformed a question about health care into a bid for the support of women: ‘’This is the sixth debate we have had in this presidential cycle. Not one word with all of these discussions about health care, on women’s access to health care. It’s outrageous.”

In doing so – and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey swiftly picked up the meme – Ms. Harris appealed to an indispensable Democratic constituency; a Pew Research Center study found that 56 per cent of women now consider themselves Democrats or lean Democratic, producing the biggest gender gap in 27 years.

The session provided an opportunity for candidates to strut the stuff they believe are their principal assets: comprehensiveness (Ms. Warren), mastery (Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota), moderation blended with passion (Mr. Biden), youthful idealism (Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.), righteous anger (Mr. Sanders, who called for a “political revolution”), and common sense (Mr. Booker).

But the effort to bring down to earth Ms. Warren (who has catapulted to the top of the Democratic ranks), and the contrived conflicts where the differences are minimal (Mr. Buttigieg and former representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, on gun control), only raise the eternal question that parties out of power face: does vigorous, searching debate among political figures who largely agree strengthen the eventual nominee, as the Book of Proverbs might argue (“Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend”), or does it enfeeble candidates for the general election and expose their weaknesses?

This week former governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, gleefully suggested the latter is the case. “The Republican National Committee should offer to be the official sponsor of a weekly Democratic debate,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Jindal likely was pleased with Tuesday night’s session, and Mr. Booker seemed to sense that.

“Tearing each other down because we have different plans,” Mr. Booker said, “will be a disaster for us in 2020.”

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