In the 1988 and 1992 elections I wasn't any more thrilled by George H. W. Bush, but even at the time I conceded that he seemed to have more on the ball than Reagan. In the years since, Bush 41 has looked better and better not just as a president (compared to his predecessor and his son, admittedly a very low bar), but as a candidate, too. Bill Clinton had already earned his "Slick Willie" moniker in my mind so my vote was about as much against Bush 41 as for Clinton. In 1996 Bob Dole was such a reactionary and Ross Perot such a loon that Clinton would have to have assaulted a nun to lose my vote.
During Clinton's presidency the far right's authoritarian tendencies broke into the open with the election to the House of Newt Gingrich and his allies. Gingrich's unwillingness to make Congress work if it redounded, even to the smallest degree, to the Democrats' credit was unprecedented in modern times. This is when our modern Congressional atherosclerosis set in.
The year 2000 marked what I assumed would be an all-time low in candidates, the barely coherent George W. Bush and the robotic stuffed-shirt Al Gore. Gore, in addition to coming off as an extraterrestrial inartfully masquerading as a human being, promised to prolong the bad feelings and unending partisan conflict that marked Clinton's last years in office. Yet Dubya was avowedly a religious zealot and self-evidently a moron. It was the first election in which I truly felt I had to hold my nose and vote for the lesser of two evils, Gore (setting aside the hopeless idealist, Ralph Nader).
By 2004 it seemed impossible that Dubya's mismanagement of the economy (his ruinous tax cuts in the face of a military conflict) and his insane swerve away from Afghanistan toward Iraq would permit him a second term. The Democrats, though, managed to find in John Kerry a candidate even less charismatic (if infinitely more cogent) than Dubya. Again, I held my nose and voted for the lesser of two evils in Kerry.
2008 was a relief in that neither major-party presidential candidate was a lost cause. Sarah Palin, though, was a different story. There had been Congressional sideshow freaks for years, but none had come within smelling distance of higher office. Palin was the first genuinely nutty, self-oblivious yet self-absorbed moron on a major-party ticket in my lifetime. (Dan Quayle was an ignoramus but he wasn't exceptionally arrogant. George W. Bush at least sensed he wasn't the brightest bulb.)
By 2008 rank-and-file Republicans had long since demonstrated they would not tolerate any presidential candidate (much less President) who didn't toe the stringent party line. Reagan's emphasis on party unity had fused with Gingrich's uncompromising insistence on doctrinal purity. John McCain's otherwise inexplicable choice of Palin as his running mate made a certain amount of sense when you consider that the party's base didn't trust him. He had to find some way of appealing to it, and he knew he couldn't convincingly make the pitch for himself.
Mitt Romney, who I suspect is personally moderate on some issues, could never have expressed or acted on those moderate beliefs if he had won. No one could. Romney wasn't intrinsically a terrible candidate to my mind, but by 2012 it was obvious that the Republican presidential candidate would not be a truly independent mind and spirit: he would merely be the vessel through which the party would exert its will, and that will was entirely the product of the far right. Romney wasn't selling himself to the electorate, he was selling the damaged GOP brand.
And now, 2016.
That Hillary Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner in spite of the deeply negative feelings many people have toward her is something of a miracle. It's just not as big a miracle as Donald Trump being the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in spite of an even more negative reputation than HRC's.
HRC is unlikable, gives off whiffs of corruption, has showed terrible judgment (the vote on the Iraq War, using a personal email server while Secretary of State), is entirely too ready to seek military solutions rather than diplomatic ones (in spite of, again, being Secretary of State) and seems to many inauthentic. Yet this deeply flawed person is a cornucopia of virtues compared to Trump. In addition to being a bully, a misogynist and an anti-Muslim and anti-Latino bigot, Trump's either a pathological liar or too deluded to comprehend reality. What issues forth from his mouth is all but entirely wrong. Indeed, the nation might chart a beneficial course for itself by listening to Trump on any issue and then doing precisely the opposite.
These two, Clinton and Trump, barring unimaginably disruptive accidents, will be our major-party choices come November. That should scare the living crap out of you.
In a different year — or in a different universe — Hillary Clinton would by now have been rendered leprous by her opponents. This year? This year, I'm investing in a gas mask because it will not suffice to hold my nose come polling time. The only thing that stinks worse than voting for Hillary is the possibility that Trump will be elected.
Have we hit rock bottom with our candidates? I thought we'd affirmatively answered this question in 2000. Now I see how much further we could have fallen, and actually have fallen. Now the question is, is there a bottom?