What happens in the Democratic contest is just as important for the US as the impeachment inquiry

The party's pick for the presidential ticket could affect the global conversation about tackling inequality and liberal capitalism

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 12, 2019 Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren participate in the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. US Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has squeezed ahead of long-time front-runner Joe Biden for the first time, according to compiled polls released October 8, 2019. The RealClearPolitics poll average put Warren on 26.6 percent and Biden on 26.4 percent in the Democratic primary contest to take on President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. / AFP / Robyn BECK
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While the focus of the US Congress over the past few weeks has been on the impeachment inquiry and Donald Trump's announcement of a pullout from Syria, with catastrophic consequences, Tuesday will be a chance for the 2020 presidential race to take centre stage once again. A dozen Democratic candidates will gather in Ohio for the fourth primary debate, one which promises to be hotly contested. It will be Bernie Sanders' first debate since suffering a heart attack and comes after Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren got one of her best poll results in the race.

For the first time since her New Year’s Eve feisty declaration of presidential candidacy – “I’m in this fight” – Ms Warren beat Democratic Party frontrunner Joe Biden in a highly regarded poll in Iowa, the first American state to vote in the presidential primary. If she wins the Iowa caucus, it could set off a chain reaction of wins in New Hampshire and Nevada and then, further afield.

The impeachment inquiry, meanwhile, is being closely watched around the world and in the US, has overshadowed the contest for the Democratic Party's nominee for president. One American elections analyst even admitted that when news of the whistleblower complaint that led to the Democrats launching the impeachment inquiry became front-page news last month, it was "the last time I really thought about the 2020 Democratic primary".

A new conversation about the parameters and purpose of liberal capitalism is overdue. This is most likely to happen if Ms Warren were to become the Democratic nominee

There is reason to re-balance the focus. What happens in the crowded Democratic field – as it winnows and finds its long-hoped-for winning candidate for November 2020 – is just as important for the US as the impeachment inquiry. In fact, the Democrats’ pick for their presidential ticket could arguably affect the global conversation about resetting capitalism to tackle rising inequality. After all, the US, the world’s biggest economy, has seen slowing productivity growth, soaring inequality, massive financial shocks and increasing inequity in the past four decades. A new conversation about the parameters and purpose of liberal capitalism is overdue.

This is most likely to happen were Ms Warren to become the Democratic nominee. A two-term senator, former Harvard law professor and a policy buff with the ability to distil dense data into Insta-friendly captions, Ms Warren’s redistributionist zeal is all about providing better health care and education for struggling Americans by means of a small tax on the wealthiest. Already, it has become a two-word rallying cry at her campaign events. “Two cents! Two cents!” crowds chant, gesturing at Ms Warren’s rallies with the two-fingered peace sign. Tee shirts, badges and fridge magnets branded with the logo “two cents” are now on offer. It has become a simple way to convey the complex idea of a wealth tax, which levies a 2 per cent charge on assets over $50 million for the greater common good.

Some say “two cents” could be Ms Warren's equivalent of Mr Trump’s “build the wall” chant from 2016 or Barack Obama’s aspirational 2008 slogan: “Yes, we can”.

Is this possible? Would we even know it, so early in the protracted process that is a US presidential election? After all, polling day – November 3, 2020 – is 13 months away. And the Democratic Party still has an embarrassment of people vying to be the presidential candidate. The Ohio debate will feature the most participants of any televised showdown in presidential campaign history, at this stage of the race.

So, what is the real state of play? How should the wider world see the dogged fight underway among Democrats campaigning on very different themes, some fairly boilerplate, while others are big, bright and neon?

The Democratic Party's base is largely youthful, energetic and ready for bold action but its leading candidates seem to be in a time warp

The first important point to note is that the three top-polling Democratic candidates are septuagenarian. At 70, Ms Warren is the youngest. Former vice president Joe Biden is 76. And Bernie Sanders, the leading fundraiser in the Democratic presidential field, is 78. If Mr Biden or Mr Sanders were to win the 2020 election, America would have the oldest US president to ever take office. Earlier this month, Mr Sanders underwent surgery following his heart attack. Mr Biden, meanwhile, has struggled to mount a robust defence against Mr Trump's accusations of corruption revolving around his son's dealings in Ukraine while he was vice president.

There is an inescapable sense, thrown up by the current Democratic field of a generational gap, of a general lassitude and an inability to respond rapidly to disaster or opportunity. The Democratic Party’s base is largely youthful, energetic and ready for bold action but its leading candidates seem chronologically (and some, temperamentally) in a time warp.

2020 Democratic presidential candidates Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, from left, Beto O'Rourke, former Representative from Texas, Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, Jay Inslee, governor of Washington, and Former Representative John Delaney stand on stage during the Democratic presidential candidate debate in Miami, Florida, U.S., on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Democratic presidential candidates tangled on health care in their first debate Wednesday, agreeing on the need for universal coverage but disagreeing about whether private insurance should be maintained. Photographer: Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg

At this point in time, the coveted nomination seems out of reach of younger Democratic presidential hopefuls, not least the five most charismatic of the under-70 brigade – California senator Kamala Harris, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, Texan former congressman Beto O’Rourke, New Jersey senator Cory Booker and philanthropist-entrepreneur Andrew Yang. The other candidates still in the race – but barely – include former Obama cabinet secretary Julian Castro, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, former Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and the billionaire hedge fund investor Tom Steyer. Next month there will be another televised Democratic debate, with more stringent criteria, further narrowing available options.

Where might all of this lead? This is where the second important point about the Democratic contest comes into play. In this presidential election, the Democrats’ primary criteria for a challenger to Mr Trump will be electability. This is perceived to be Mr Biden’s strength, as an avuncular white man with working-class roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and a much-loved folksy idiom.

But it is early days. The impeachment inquiry has barely begun and Ms Warren’s call for a “two cents” revolution is just beginning to be heard above the white noise.

There really is everything to play for.