If you were a moderate Republican, an independent voter or a conservative who’s not a big fan of Donald Trump, you might have tuned into the recent Democratic debates hoping to see a breath of fresh air somewhere, or at least a sign of sanity. That may have been a faint hope, but with a  few of the candidates there was a real possibility that something might emerge: Joe Biden has a lengthy history of working with his Republican colleagues, while New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker worked well with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul on criminal justice reform, as a few examples. Unfortunately, they and other candidates on the stage both nights seemed less interested in bringing the country together than they were in attacking their opponents and ramping up their support among the far left.

One of the biggest moments on either night came when first-term California Sen. Kamala Harris went after former Vice President Joe Biden over his prior opposition to federally mandated busing of students in local schools. There was a time when that issue was an intensely divisive one in this country, and it didn’t always cut neatly along party lines. In heavily Democratic Boston, there were riots over busing, and the issue split the party. One of the lead opponents of busing in Boston was a Democratic congresswoman, Louise Day Hicks, who lost re-election over the issue. If Biden had had the time to explain the history during the debate, he might have been able to offer a better response to Harris’ criticism; unfortunately, in such a large group, he didn’t have the chance to recover from that stumble.

There were plenty of chances for the plethora of Democratic candidates to try to sneak in some appeal to moderates or independent conservatives, but almost none were taken. On immigration, all of the candidates on the second night endorsed government-funded health care even for people who came to this country illegally. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about increasing detentions – as happened under the previous Democratic administration – or increasing funding for border security. In this area, the Democratic candidates could have staked out ground where they disagree with Trump about building a wall, but agree that more needs to be done to improve border security. That has been a common position of Democratic candidates in the past, but it wasn’t on display during the debates.

With gun control, a similar pattern emerged: The candidates did their best to rush to the left. They enthusiastically endorsed greater government control over our right to bear arms, whether through legislative action or executive action. They all seem to want push gun control to some degree; the only question is the particulars. That’s a far cry from Maine, where there’s quite a divide among Democrats on guns. Rural Democrats (including Janet Mills) know they can’t go all-in on gun control like Portland Democrats. That helps explain why, even when Democrats had full control in Augusta, only one gun control bill (L.D. 1811, the alternative “red-flag” measure) got through this session. It’s clear that at the national level, there is no such divide: Democrats running for president are all-in on gun control. Pretty soon, they’ll drag the rest of the party along with them, right down to the local level.

Rather than attempting to appeal to the voters they lost in 2016, or to disillusioned Republicans who might be shopping around in 2020, the Democratic strategy seems to be to gin up their liberal base. That’s certainly a perfectly understandable approach right now, but it’s not going to work in the general election. Ordinarily, after winning the nomination, a candidate will pivot back to the center, but if the primaries drag them too far to the left, that may prove difficult. If it is, they remain hamstrung to their initial strategy of appealing to the base in the general election, which only encourages further partisan polarization.

While it might seem as if that will work because that’s how Trump won, that’s an oversimplification. Trump talked tough on immigration, but that issue appealed to conservatives and independents alike. He also backed away from fiscal conservatism, spurning discussion of entitlement reform and failing to embrace free trade. The question for Democrats is where their eventual nominee might back away from typical liberal positions and show an independent streak. Though it’s early yet, after the initial debate, it’s difficult to see that happening at all – and that’s a shame not just for undecided voters, but for the country as a whole as well.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel

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