WASHINGTON — There are rare moments in history when Americans have sought the comfort of experience over the excitement of novelty. Indeed, our first five presidents were established figures, familiar and experienced, and steeped in the values of the Revolution and the Constitution.
But there are other times when Americans have been drawn to the fresh and the new, which is why Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama emerged as strong presidential candidates — all doing so at times of transition or trial.
The challenge for political analysts is to gauge the temper of the times — to determine whether, as it was in 1988, an experienced hand (George H.W. Bush) is preferred, or whether, as in 1992, the country is open to the entreaties of a relative outsider (Bill Clinton). The difficulty of that calculus is summarized in the career of Abraham Lincoln, who ascended to the White House as the least experienced of the 1860 contenders but who prevailed four years later after popularizing the notion that it was imprudent to swap horses in midstream.
The 2016 presidential campaign is barely underway, but in its early stages it can be characterized by a giant contradiction:
The two candidates regarded as frontrunners, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are both established figures, but polls clearly suggest that the public is in the mood for a new face. The latest Wall Street Journal/?NBC News Poll showed that, by an astonishing 21-point margin (59 percent to 38 percent), the public says it prefers a president with new ideas and vision rather than one with experience.
Let’s put aside the inner contradictions of some of the poll’s questions — the false notion, for example, that an experienced political figure (such as former House Speaker and former Gov. James K. Polk, who in historical retrospect was a surprisingly and unusually creative president) cannot have new ideas or vision. Surely both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Bush believe they do, but there is no debating the fact that much of their appeal is due to their experience, or the experience the nation has had with members of their respective families.
That’s why there is inherent tension in this election. The two most prominent figures are not only members of their party establishments but also are coming to this race from traditional bases, including the State Department, which has provided six presidents, and the nation’s governors’ offices, which, if you include territorial and district governorships (Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, William Howard Taft), have provided nearly half the presidents.
The Journal/?NBC poll shows that, by more than two-to-one, the public considers Mr. Bush more a figure of the past than a candidate of new ideas and, by a smaller 7-point margin (51 percent to 44 percent), considers Ms. Clinton the same way.
This cannot be comforting to either candidate but may be more dangerous for Mr. Bush, who arguably is more of a newcomer to the national political stage. With two terms as governor in Tallahassee, he has less government experience than Ms. Clinton, who served in the Senate before going to the State Department and was a prominent health-policy adviser in her husband’s White House.
There is a second source of tension as the 2016 election gets underway. Traditionally, Democrats have been more free-wheeling, and more open to insurgencies, which is why so many of them quote the famous Will Rogers line, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” But in recent years it is the Republicans, once a hierarchical party devoutly respectful of tradition and experience, who have had a surfeit of insurgents and repeated internal battles.
All frontrunning candidates face pressure, but those of 2016 are facing unusual challenges. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, GOP Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin said, “I just think voters are going to look at this and say, ‘If we’re running against Hillary Clinton, we’ll need a name from the future, not a name from the past, to win.’ ”
But Ms. Clinton has frontrunner challenges of her own, as underlined by the recent contretemps over her emails. That controversy may fade, but the test for Ms. Clinton is best explained by the conundrum faced by the heroine in Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country”:
She had found out that she had “given herself to the exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and … that she was in the case of those who have cast in their lot with a fallen cause or … who have hired an opera box on the wrong night.”
All that has prompted worry among Democrats, some of whom are quietly concerned that Ms. Clinton’s strength in party polls renders her a singular target more than a year before the election — a problem not shared by most eventual nominees of the past, who, in primary and caucus season, had to share the spotlight with challengers.
“I would say this: Watch out,” former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, the Democrats’ 1984 nominee, said in a telephone conversation this month. “I hadfront-runner status that I think sort made me look presumptive and presumptuous. Voters don’t like that. I didn’t handle that as well as I might have. It is a really risky position to be in.”
Risky, but, Mr. Mondale added, “I don’t see anyone challenging her right now.”
Even so, the companion Democratic worry is that the party has no Plan B in the event Ms. Clinton stumbles. Its new faces are obscure even to the trained eye and virtually invisible to the public eye. It is a party that is convinced that, with its demographic advantages and policy positions, it is poised for a bright future, but right now it is a leaderless horde if for some reason Ms. Clinton stands down or is weakened.
Republicans, on the other hand, have fewer followers than the Democrats but more than two dozen potential leaders. They will have a bitter struggle in the primaries that may produce an embittered party base — an irony for a party that, since the Reagan years, has sought to portray itself as the repository of American optimism.
All these contradictions make for an election season of unusual tension. Nominations in both parties are in play — and dramas within both parties are being played out.