There have been candidates for president who were truly adored by Democrats. Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy are the prime examples, but also Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Other candidates in other times, however, made Democrats doubt they were putting their best person forward. Hubert Humphrey in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Michael Dukakis in 1988 come to mind.
This year, there are certainly many Democrats who are passionate about Hillary Clinton, especially among those who were sick to see her lose to Obama eight years ago. And Bernie Sanders has surprised everyone by drawing unusually large and enthusiastic crowds and raising millions of dollars from the small contributions of grass-roots voters. Nevertheless, there is unease among more than a few Democrats who are not thrilled by their choices in the 2016 presidential contest.
Sanders' ideas have stirred the ideological fervor of old progressives and young millennials, just as Eugene McCarthy once did when those old progressives were young students protesting a war. But, though he is reasonably lovable in a grandfatherly way, Sanders is not stealing Democratic hearts like the youthful Robert Kennedy did in the brief campaign that ended in his assassination in ’68 or as Obama’s ultra-cool “Yes We Can” campaign did 40 years later.
Age is the subliminal factor for the 74-year-old Sanders. If a candidate can be so easily portrayed as a crusty curmudgeon, as comic Larry David has done hilariously more than once on "Saturday Night Live," there might be a problem. It may be prejudiced, shallow and wrong, but Americans are attracted to youthful vigor, not to old guys with stooped shoulders and white hair. That could hurt Sanders more than his socialist brand.
Hillary, meanwhile, has the solid loyalty of veteran feminists and the affection of most black voters, but others are not so eager to relive the Clinton melodramas, nor are they convinced that a second Clinton White House would not cozy up to Wall Street the way the first one did. And younger voters do not necessarily see her as an agent of change, even if she would be the first female president. Rather, she is a figure from their childhoods, the other woman in the Monica Lewinsky soap opera.
The melodramas are Clinton’s nagging problem. The baggage that Hillary and Bill carry around has always offered an irresistible target to their enemies. That sorry reality is a big wet blanket draped over her campaign. In so many ways, she is eminently qualified to be president -- a former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of State -- and yet, the thought of the country being sucked back down into the decades-old cage match between Clinton haters and Clinton loyalists makes many Democrats long for a fresher face.
Of course, if Hillary did not have Bill, the right wing would come up with something else. They did it with Benghazi. Knowing that, Clinton does her best to ignore the old scandals (even as Donald Trump tweets about them) while she markets the latest version of herself.
Reports from Iowa indicate that Clinton is projecting a warmer, fuzzier persona than she did in 2008. She has done a lot of small-room, one-on-one campaigning. She engages with people whose concerns are close to home -- aging parents, kids with autism, struggles with Alzheimer’s -- rather than far away in the Middle East or China. And she talks a lot about her grandchildren; the one already in the crib and the second one due later this year. Physically, Clinton now looks much more like Val the bartender -- the character she played in a "Saturday Night Live" skit -- than the intelligently glamorous first lady she was two decades ago. If she was not so famous, she could easily blend in with any group of middle-aged women shopping for iceberg lettuce and spaghetti sauce in a Des Moines grocery store.
In 2008, the Democratic race was electric. Either way it went, Democrats knew they could make history. Now, eight years later, the winner of that marathon campaign is in his last year as president with some Democrats disappointed that he failed to achieve more and many others even more disappointed that he cannot run again. And the loser from that primary campaign is giving it one more shot in one of the weirdest election seasons Americans have ever witnessed.
Democrats may not adore the contenders for their nomination. They may find Bernie a bit too old and Hillary too old news. Nevertheless, after witnessing the vicious partisan warfare of the last seven years and the escalating demagoguery on the Republican side of the 2016 equation, they know this campaign is not about hope and change and inspiration. It is not about loving their own candidates. It is about loathing and fearing the alternatives on the right.