The field of Democrats aspiring to be their party’s presidential nominee resembles what the Republican field of four years ago would have been, had Donald Trump not entered the race.

With more than 20 contenders, Democrats have had to break up their first two presidential debates into two sets of ten candidates, each airing on consecutive evenings in June and July. Likewise, the Republicans had too many candidates for one stage in the 2016 contest. But they had the benefit of having one candidate who was both leading in the polls and who stood for a stark new direction for the party.

Trump rendered irrelevant all of the ideological bickering and philosophical fine-tuning of his rivals. Was Ted Cruz libertarian enough to win votes from Rand Paul? Was Paul reassuring enough to religious voters to win them from Cruz? Was the most electable candidate—at least in the eyes of the party establishment—the fresh-faced Marco Rubio or the heir to the Bush dynasty, Jeb? Did Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker mix just the right amount of ideological purity and executive experience to break through? None of that mattered. Instead of having to refurbish a dilapidated political brand, Republicans were handed a new set of themes and a new approach to winning elections (particularly in the Rust Belt) by Trump, who demonstrated from the start that he had enough voters behind him to realize his transformation of the party.

Without a catalyst like Trump, the Democrats are left to squabble. What exactly are the degrees of difference between Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism and Elizabeth Warren’s left-wing economics? Is veteran politician Joe Biden more electable than a freshman California senator, Kamala Harris, who might appeal to the identity-politics vote? Do Democrats who embrace big government but repudiate socialism—like former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and former Maryland Representative John Delaney—still have a place in the party of Sanders, Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Nobody running for the Democratic nomination commands enough support or enough attention to put these questions out of mind. The narcissism of small differences, and large ones, is on full display.

And so the highlights of the first two Democratic debates have been the attacks. Harris scored points against Biden in the first contest by condemning his long-ago opposition to school desegregation busing. In the second debate, Hickenlooper, Delaney, and Montana Governor Steve Bullock clashed with Sanders and Warren over their plans for “Medicare for All,” which would destroy the private insurance market, reducing the choices available to patients. On the second night of the second debate, Tulsi Gabbard, congresswoman from Hawaii, cut Kamala Harris to the quick with Harris’s own record as attorney general of California. “There are too many examples to cite,” Gabbard said of Harris, “but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence—she blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.”

Harris fired back after the debate by ridiculing Gabbard’s 1 percent standing in the polls. And Harris’s defenders among the pundit class were quick to attack Gabbard for her notably noninterventionist foreign policy, painting her as a stooge of Russia and an apologist for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The same artillery leveled against Trump would do for Gabbard, or so they hoped.

The disharmony on the debate stage has its echo in Congress. Tensions between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and young leftists like Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar have been high all summer long. President Trump has done his part to increase the awkwardness between Pelosi and her radical colleagues by baiting the speaker into defending them against his attacks.

Establishment Republicans were similarly unhappy when forced to defend Donald Trump in 2016, and indeed they are just as unhappy whenever they have to defend him now. But within the GOP, it has been clear all along that the base stands with Trump and that establishment Republicans could either accept that fact or retire—as Paul Ryan did.
Among the Democrats there is no clear pecking order. Establishment figures like Pelosi and Biden are not overwhelmed by a Sanders or an Ocasio-Cortez, and those left-wing insurgents in turn feel no compulsion to truckle to the speaker or Obama’s vice president. Indeed, one of the interesting developments in the second debate was the sight of 2020 hopefuls condemning the Obama-Biden record because Obama deported too many illegal aliens.

Without Trump, the Republican Party would remain hopelessly divided between its Tea Party and establishment wings, with each wing itself divided between different personalities and different permutations of the same stale ideologies. However unorthodox and unsettling he is, Trump has given his party clear leadership and an agenda made for the 21st century—one that tackles immigration, trade, the power of China, and the waste of American blood and treasure in Middle East wars. Sanders and Warren would like to re-orient the Democratic Party in just as dramatic a fashion. But Biden still leads them in the polls, and Congress remains full of Democrats like Pelosi, who might prove tougher for a President Sanders than Paul Ryan proved for President Trump. The Republican Party is Trump’s party; the Democratic Party, for now, is nobody’s.