You have heard it said before. I’ve said it myself. As a colleague recently grumbled: “The bar is low. All I want is a return to the rule of law.”
Indeed, the bar is set low for the 2020 presidential election if it means Democrats should nominate the person most likely to defeat Trump, that candidates competing for the nomination should do no harm to one another in the primaries, and that they and their supporters should rally behind the Party’s eventual nominee on the assumption that winning the election will return the nation to the status quo ante.
Is a reset enough? Is restoring the state of affairs as it existed before Trump’s presidency the right goal and the likeliest way to win the election?
Progressives and moderates answer differently. Progressives argue that aiming for a reset is not ambitious enough to energize a changing electorate. Structural change is required. Moderates argue that setting the bar too high—moving too far left on the political spectrum—will fail to carry states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which are crucial in an election determined by the electoral college rather than the popular vote. Preaching to the coastal blue choir may work in the primaries but not in the general election.
At a minimum, this low-bar/high-bar conundrum suggests there is a political risk both ways. Democrats could lose the election by setting the bar too low or too high.
A problem with the low-bar approach is that Trump frames its agenda. The election will be contested on his terms. Whatever he has broken, his Democratic opponent will promise to fix.
The general point applies to the specific topic of foreign affairs. So far, the leading candidates have said relatively little about foreign affairs, but repairing the damage Trump has done to international relations is a common theme.
What has Trump’s wrecking-ball presidency broken? The list includes (1) withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, (2) abandoning the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia in order to build new nuclear weapons, (3) distancing the US from its NATO allies, (4) attempting to overthrow the Maduro regime in Venezuela, (5) undermining the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, (6) starting a trade war with China, (7) befriending authoritarians such as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, (8) declaring prematurely a final victory over ISIS, (9) gutting the State Department, and more.
What have the leading candidates said so far about this record of wreckage? Tyler Bellstrom offers an incomplete but succinct summary. Joe Biden’s recent foreign policy speech was mostly “an attempt at resetting America’s foreign policy to the pre-Trump time.” Biden would reassert American leadership, return to American values, and reemphasize the importance of allies in meeting the rising threat of China. Kamala Harris would not be soft on North Korea. Pete Buttigieg would revive accords Trump has abandoned. Elizabeth Warren would revitalize the State Department, improve trade relations, end Trump’s support of the Saudi war in Yemen, and advance a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons. Bernie Sanders would return to a stronger reliance on diplomacy and closer coordination with allies and support a reassertion of Congress’s war powers as a check on executive war making.
There is no high bar evident so far on matters of foreign policy—no sustained critique of US militarism and the supporting myth of American exceptionalism, no vision of pursuing a positive and just peace. On the subject of international relations, ousting Trump—by a progressive or moderate candidate—means fixing what Trump broke without addressing the larger problems associated with an empire seemingly in decline.
So far, the imperial war state has eluded a direct hit in Campaign 2020. Certainly, a more humane and responsible public discourse on matters such as climate change, immigration, health care, trade policy, income equity, gun control, and civil rights could help to reinforce democratic values and shape attitudes more consistent with a culture of peace. But that would be an indirect contribution without any specific application to, or critical engagement of, the prevailing war culture and thus an outcome too easily coopted by militarists.
The low-bar restoration trope, without guaranteeing an electoral victory, may cost the country an opportunity to confront its many intersecting problems, domestic and foreign. One hears people say it will take a disaster to bring about positive change, whether on global warming, health care, or foreign relations. Perhaps Trump is the disaster. Perhaps his presidency is the exigency at hand, the prod the country needs to move forward rather than just attempt a reset.
Maybe the operative question should be how high the bar can be raised, not whether it should be low or high. Tropes are a matter of perspective, and perspective makes a difference.