Ross Douthat makes a good point today about the endlessly repeated observation that Republican voters don't seem very thrilled by any of the presidential candidates on offer:
What’s remarkable is how often this seems to happen. As weak as this year’s Republican field has proved, it’s not that much weaker than a number of recent presidential vintages, from the Democrats’ lineups in 1988 and 2004 to the Republican field in 1996. In presidential politics, the great talents (a Clinton, a Reagan) seem to be the exception; a march of Dole-Dukakis-Mondale mediocrity is closer to the rule.
There's a lot of truth to this. When it comes to presidential candidates, we are a nation of whiners. Let's refresh our memories about the candidates who ended up winning their primaries and running for president over the past 30 years.
Among non-incumbents, I think it's fair to say that Reagan in 1980 and Obama in 2008 were unquestionably inspirational figures among their party's base, not just candidates they were willing to settle for. I think it's also safe to say that Mondale, Dukakis, Bush Sr., Dole, Gore, Kerry, and McCain, weren't.
Clinton in 1992 and Bush Jr. in 2000 I'm less sure about. Clinton has taken on elder statesman status since he left office, but I don't recall Democrats being thrilled about his candidacy in 1992. Bush Jr. is a little harder to call. I think I'd probably have to ask some Republicans to weigh in on this.
In any case, this means that out of 11 non-incumbent candidates over the past three decades, only two were clearly inspirational at the time, two more were possibly B-list inspirational, and seven were basically duds. Long story short, we Americans aren't usually very happy with the presidential choices put in front of us. The 2012 Republican primary is much more the rule than the exception.