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u.s election 2016

Democratic U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders speak during a Democratic debate in New York on April 14, 2016.LUCAS JACKSON/Reuters

Who's crying now?

For weeks it has been the Republicans, riven by factions, their establishment figures desperately unhappy with their putative nominee, their donor class holding back its support – and its dollars. Much of that despair and division persists, and earlier this week it became apparent that Donald J. Trump's goal of raising $1-billion for the fall campaign was looming as a big challenge for the political organization known as the party of big money.

But suddenly there is growing despair among the Democrats, who for a year thought they knew the identity of their nominee and who looked upon the crisis in the Republican Party with barely hidden schadenfreude. Let them fight among themselves, party leaders said, while we build a wall of solidarity – and make the Republicans pay for it.

As the final political tests approach and as both parties gird for the midsummer madness of their quadrennial political conventions, the two parties increasingly are experiencing the same sense of anomie. Neither party is particularly pleased with its apparent nominee; neither has the sense of destiny that Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama possessed in 1980 and 2008, respectively; and neither has a plan to clear away the funk. More and more, this looks like a contest between the lesser of two evils, producing a fall campaign that will be the evil of two lessers.

But it is the despair among the Democrats that is the freshest development in an American political year that has had a surfeit of surprises.

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton had figured on wrapping up her nomination weeks ago, casting aside an irrelevant but irritating challenge from a fringe candidate in his 70s who spoke like a democratic socialist and indeed affirmed that that is exactly what he is. Senator Bernie Sanders was, to the Clinton team, a gadfly on a massive ego trip, spewing appealing campaign bromides – break up the banks, save the planet, give college kids free tuition – that didn't add up in a quixotic campaign that didn't amount to much.

Instead, Mr. Sanders had identified the centre of his (adopted) party and had discerned that the sweet spot of the Democrats wasn't at the centre at all but was instead over on the left. Fortified by the sort of adoring crowds that Mrs. Clinton expected to be hers, he soared among young people and among a core of old-time liberal true believers who don't want him to quit and who have the conviction that they are on a mission – one, it might be added, with more clarity and discipline than the one being undertaken on the Republican side.

The result: Mrs. Clinton has a real problem on her hands, one for which her experience as a senator (elected twice from the important political state of New York, which has launched six presidents, from Martin Van Buren in 1837 to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933) and as a diplomat (she visited 112 countries, a record, in her four years as Mr. Obama's secretary of state) offers her no tools.

Mr. Sanders, a slim man living large, believes he not only is on the right side of the issues but also is on the right side of history. He isn't about to stand down.

Not only that: He has all but declared war on the Democratic National Committee itself, characterizing it as biased, all but echoing the charges that Mr. Trump levelled against the Republican National Committee. He's fired attacks on Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the party chair, and then has gone one step farther, endorsing the virtually unknown law professor who is running in a Democratic primary against her in Florida. This is not done.

But Mr. Trump has pushed on Mr. Sanders the notion that both parties are corrupt, and the Vermont senator has picked up the beat and the charge. As recently as Sunday, Mr. Sanders assailed the Democratic practice of giving established political figures, known as superdelegates, places at the convention – and then sought their support at the Philadelphia convention in July.

"I ask those superdelegates to take a look at which candidate is the stronger to defeat Donald Trump," Mr. Sanders said on ABC's This Week. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll shows Mr. Sanders defeating Mr. Trump by 15 percentage points while Mrs. Clinton leads the Manhattan businessman by only 3 percentage points.

Losing presidential candidates like to say they have changed history, but apart from the 1976 campaign of Mr. Reagan, who was defeated for the GOP presidential nomination by the incumbent, Gerald R. Ford, hardly any of them have changed anything. (Quick: How exactly did the presidential campaign of Morris K. Udall of Arizona change the world, besides giving political professionals a few hardy anecdotes?)

Mr. Sanders is different in that he fervently believes his campaign will change the Democratic Party, which is to say that it will move it leftward and away from the centre where Mrs. Clinton and her husband, the 42nd president, feel most comfortable. But if Mrs. Clinton is elected, and if she faces a Republican Congress determined to thwart her and push back on the legacy of Barack Obama, the notions and nostrums of Mr. Sanders will count for very little.

Mr. Sanders isn't about to quit, even as the Greek chorus of Democratic consultants and experts say that he is endangering Mrs. Clinton's fall prospects and providing oxygen for Mr. Trump, who from the Democratic point of view is the sum of all fears. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders agree on the need to keep Mr. Trump far from the White House and the nuclear codes. How to do that while they continue fighting each other is not similarly clear.

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.