“Who are we?”
At the very start of Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Senator Kamala Harris of California made the point that this question – about the American character, about its profile in the world in the Trump era – is what the campaign for the White House is all about.
But first the Democrats need to answer that question – who are we? – about themselves.
Some two dozen presidential candidates will return to the campaign trail here in New Hampshire and in the other early primary and caucus states after two nights of acetous debates that widened rather than diminished the divisions that threaten the Democratic Party as it struggles to find a nominee to defeat Donald J. Trump.
On trade, health care, the environment, the gender pay gap and reparations for slavery, the Democrats sparred for two midsummer evenings, providing a showcase for their own views – but, far more consequentially, displaying a battle within the Democratic Party as searing and significant as the cultural war that split the Republican Party for decades.
That GOP culture war set in motion the forces that propelled Mr. Trump into office, reshaping the Republicans from a party that favoured free trade, abhorred budget deficits and was a strong force for civil rights into the protectionist, tax-cutting vanguard of today with little appeal for racial minorities. How this current struggle will reshape the Democrats – internal strife that is repositioning the world’s oldest political party even as it seeks to unite to fight a president who at home and in global affairs has altered the country that by some definitions is the world’s oldest democracy – is the great drama now unfolding in the United States.
In the course of about five blistering hours of debate this week there was not even the hint of how the Democrats might resolve their growing identity crisis.
“The person who is enjoying this debate most,” Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said Wednesday night, “is Donald Trump.”
In the short term – 16 months before voters express their election verdict on Mr. Trump – the Democratic battle can be distilled down to one question: Is the fight to reposition the party or is it to replace the President?
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Governor Steve Bullock of Montana Tuesday night used nearly identical language – an eerie echo from the geographic centre of the country and perhaps its political centre as well – when asking if the Democratic candidates were more interested in winning an argument than in winning the election.
Overall, the two nights seemed to encapsulate an adaptation of a notion sometimes attributed to the Italian politician and theorist Antonio Gramsci, for it put on display a conflict between an old party in danger of dying and a new one struggling to be born.
Two surprising, important realignments emerged from the week’s sessions, which challenged the attention spans of a politics-weary nation even as the twin debates underlined the Democrats’ challenges in seeking to oust Mr. Trump from the White House.
The Wednesday session put Ms. Harris – by any measure the winner of the June debates – on the defensive and may have halted her upward movement in the polls. At the same time, former vice-president Joe Biden, under constant attack, showed traces of the confidence and mastery that he lacked as Ms. Harris challenged him last month on his civil rights record. But Mr. Booker scored points in his challenge to Mr. Biden’s crime-fighting record and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand did so as well in her challenge to his views on women in the workplace.
The Tuesday session was expected to pit the leading progressives against each other in an attempt to clear the left lane of the nomination fight but instead seemed to create a liberal union against more moderate candidates. The New England liberals, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, were playing a kind of political mixed doubles, returning volley after volley from lesser-known contenders. The two lawmakers’ hug at the outset of the session was more than a symbol.
For two evenings the debate swung between purists and pragmatists. Ms. Warren said she didn’t “understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” But Mr. Bullock argued that the purists were peddling what he twice described as “wish-list economics” and Representative Timothy Ryan of Ohio spoke of the voters who “take a shower after work,” the moderate blue-collar workers who once were the centre of the Democratic Party.
Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders together accounted for more than 36 minutes and were the fulcrum of the first night’s debate, emerging as one face of the party, while Mr. Biden and a panoply of bottom-tier contenders – especially former Representative John Delaney of Maryland, who twice employed the phrase “impossible promises” to describe the proposals of many of his rivals – emerged as another.
But though Janus was the Roman mythological god of transitions, political parties cannot long survive as Janus-faced, with one visage looking left and the other turned slightly to the right. To speak with one voice, the Democrats still must put one face forward.