When Donald Trump fired John Bolton this week, he was freeing himself from more than an uncooperative national security adviser. He was ditching an electoral liability, too. A president who ran against the “forever” wars could not go into 2020 with an enthusiast for them (and many other skirmishes) so high up his payroll. This is a man with re-election increasingly on his mind. Peace sells.
It is the identity of his Democratic opponent that not even Mr Trump, with his animal nose for politics, can know with any certainty. Joe Biden has turned fame and vice-presidential experience into a poll lead, but not a crushing one. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren fight to carry the mantle of an increasingly assertive left. Of the non-septuagenarians, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg seem likeliest to break into the podium places. Thursday’s televised debate in Houston saw other contenders seek to put pressure on Mr Biden.
The temptation has been to make opposition to Mr Trump the beginning, middle and end of the Democratic pitch. He is unpopular enough to warrant such a tactic. But it would put off a question centre-left politicians have been ducking across the west, and to some cost. What are they for?
For a generation, under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats offered incremental social reform within an open economy. After the trauma of 2016, the party had to decide if that message was defunct or if only its political conduit, Hillary Clinton, was defective.
To their credit, the candidates are answering the question one way or the other. They have passed up the intellectual short-cut of simply defining themselves against Mr Trump. Mr Biden offers a kind of nostalgic centrism, the implication being that he would have taken the Clintonian platform to victory three years ago. Mr Sanders and Ms Harris preach leftward change, with the first majoring on economic inequality and the second calling for more focus on identity than the Third Way ever offered.
Of all the candidates, though, none has been more declarative than Ms Warren. The Senator for Massachusetts has a “plan for everything”, it is said, often with a roll of the eyes, but vagueness would be much worse. Instead, she argues for policies that are clear to the point of crudeness, such as her wealth tax and the mass cancellation of student debt. Among her heresies against Clintonian orthodoxy, she refuses donations from Wall Street (if, that is, any were forthcoming).
If there is any ambiguity, it tends to start at the water’s edge. When discussion turns to foreign policy, Ms Warren’s passionate fluency becomes a slightly rote spiel about the value of allies. But on the home front, she is anything but shifty. That might explain the endurance of her once-unfancied candidacy.
The word “socialist” is mangled out of all usefulness in America. It almost always describes something nearer European social democracy. But whether she is deep red or a kind of displaced Swede, Ms Warren, if nominated, would represent an end to the gradualism that has characterised the Democrats since the end of the cold war. In a field of clear answers about where the party should head, hers has been the clearest.
The primary race has lacked many things: a natural star of the Obama variety, adequate discussion of China, awareness of the US fiscal deficit. But a vision for the centre-left is not missing. A party that might have indulged a negative obsession with Mr Trump is managing to think beyond him.
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