For the past two election cycles, the cry of the Republican base has been that the GOP lost the presidency because it didn't nominate a real conservative.
With the party as subdivided as a potato farm-turned-housing development, it's hard to say what the base thinks a real conservative is. That's part of the problem: Four years ago, you got Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain and Rick Perry and all the rest running under different conservative platforms, they split the base, the money and volunteers, and Mitt Romney laughed his way to the convention (but not the White House).
But whatever a real conservative is, there is agreement that Romney -- who supported health care mandates, abortion rights and gun control before he realized his political fortunes were largely dependent on small-government-loving, gun-toting evangelicals -- wasn't it. Ditto John McCain, who was as hawkish a conservative as you could ask for, but didn't express a lot of dedication to eradicating abortion or addressing other social issues, lowering taxation or getting his pitch right when he sang about bombing Iran. In fact, McCain has been known to refer to the shining lights of the seriously conservative wing as "whacko birds." On a good day, it's part of his charm. On a bad day, it's all of his charm.
For their part, Democrats are happy to agree with GOPers who want a serious righty to run against. The thinking is that such a candidate would lose the election by 15 points. The Republicans would thus learn that preaching the abolition of the federal government isn't really the best way to persuade people to let you run the federal government. Then Republicans would recalibrate, as Democrats did after the Michael Dukakis-Walter Mondale madness, and Congress eventually, someday, would pass legislation to repair a bridge or two.
But this year feels different.
This year, the Democratic base seems to be screaming for a real honest-to-God liberal.
Sanders. Feel. The. Bern.
Unlike in the GOP, in which serious philosophical differences abound, Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton (and Joe Biden and Martin O'Malley and that Chafee fellow ... and Jim Webb?) largely agree. They believe in big taxes and broader social programs and regulation and an all-powerful central government that will stop letting the great unwashed make their own decisions and concentrate on getting a good scrubbing.
They just disagree on whether it's a good idea to admit what they believe. Sanders says yes. Clinton says, "I'm a grandma! And my mom was poor! Trust me!" But anyone who's been following her since she came on the scene in the 1990s understands she is as liberal at heart as her opponents, at least on domestic issues.
My best guess is that we'll still get Jeb Bush and Hillary, but I wouldn't bet my last Yoo-hoo on it. If that's the case, we'll have two candidates who, except for in Supreme Court nominations, would be similar. They wouldn't mind bombing stuff. They'd fight for immigration reform. They'd support Common Core education standards, even if they have to rename them. They would, in the great American tradition, try (and fail) to reform the tax code.
But what if both parties nominated standard-bearers who openly represented a set of bedrock beliefs? Bernie vs. Marco Rubio, or Bernie vs. Ted Cruz. Heck, even Bernie vs. Rand Paul or Lindsey Graham would be fascinating.
Might we then get the honest debate we need about in which direction this nation ought to head? Might we then get a president with a mandate to lead? At the very least we would get an election about principles. That, to me, would be a fascinating improvement.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.