The Democratic Party has held the White House, eight of the last 24 (and apparently soon to be 28 years), add the Carter term and its but 12 out of the last 40.
Not very good obviously.
But it has been worse, and it is good to remember why it was worse.
Between 1861 and 1933 the Democratic party held the White House for a grand total of 16 out of 72 years.
The reasons are relatively simple, the GOP coasted on the legacy of Lincoln and the Civil War, and then for a period of time off of the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt.
Granted a few of those elections could have gone the other way. After 8 years of corruption and aimlessness in the Grant years, the Democrats, actually won the election of 1876 and Samuel Tilden would have been President. But disputed votes in Louisiana coupled with GOP control of the Congress helped to make Rutherford "The B is for James Blaines "Bitch"" Hayes the winner, with the awful compromise of ending reconstruction. In 1888, Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the election to Benjamin Harrison.
But even the Democratic victories were not exactly easy. Wilson won in 1912 only because the GOP fractured over the issue of Regulation and Theodore Roosevelt's vanity. In the end progressive Republicans were cast out of control of the GOP pretty much through the present day, the only battle in the GOP being between traditional pro-business conservatism and outright wingnuttery in either its anti-communist or anti-secularist forms. If the GOP had been united in 1912, there would have been no President Wilson. When he ran for reelection in 1916 Wilson won by the skin of his teeth over Charles Evans Hughes primarily because our boys weren't dying over in Europe, when that actually happened, after the war ended, the Democrats were rewarded in 1920 with a first class ass whooping by smiling, vacuous Warren Harding.
The reasons for the constant defeats are relatively simple.
For most of this period the Democrats were the party of the Civil war defeatists or the defeated. Until Bryan came along, for thirty years the Democrats only strength was found in local machine politics, there was no real national agenda that Democrats rallied around. Cleveland's two victories were more attributable to his relative integrity over his patently corrupt Republican challengers -- but he lost when he ran against the poster child for milquetoast, Harrison, who was as stupid as he was honest.
It was Bryan, who as you know, I admire despite his religious fundamentalism, who finally gave the Democratic Party something to rally around. But Bryan in 1896 was saddled with a outgoing Cleveland administration that was suffering through an economic downturn and frankly thought Bryan was dangerous (Cleveland was the ultimate Democratic "me too" politician, he might as well have been a Republican). They did little to help him, putting Bryan in a near impossible position to win election. Nonetheless, Bryan had strong campaign really the first modern one, of stump speeches around the country. Bryan would run again, but lost to McKinley in 1900 when the latter ran in the glow of the victory over Spain, and again in 1908, when he lost because Theodore Roosevelt had used regulation as both a sop to progressivism and a shield for corporate interests and cast his popularity to say that Taft would continue this movement, Bryan and the Democrats were without an issue in 1908.
Though Bryan repeatedly lost, his ideals had in many ways won, though they were essentially altered and coopted for a time by the GOP.
Other than Bryan there are few, if any, Democratic leaders that are memorable (other than Wilson and Cleveland of course). By the time Bryan was established in the Democratic Party, the Democrats had lost the progressive movement's strong advocates to the Socialist Party's Eugene Debs, more on him, and the awful series of Democratic Presidential Candidants in another post, at another time.
Other than Bryan (and this includes Wilson) the Democratic Party did not have a honest to god person with legitimate progressive chops run for office until Hubert Humphrey, and he was hardly a firebrand by 1968. Even Franklin Roosevelt won less because he of progressivism, than that he wasn't Hoover, the GOP's wretched laissez-faire policies exposed as bankrupt for all to see. Roosevelt, was less a progressive, than he was a regulator, like his namesake a generation before. But obviously, he gave the Democrats an ideal and a personage to identify with, and reshaped the Presidency for each and every one of his successors in a way no one ever has.
The reason the Democrats were adrift for so long is that they were nothing more than Republicans-lite with the added baggage of Southern Bigotry, in short unimaginative losers. A party, if it wishes to have a long run in power needs to have two things. First, the party formerly in power has to have a major fuck up on their watch and a major leader to take advantage of the Fuck Up.
The Republicans have had this in the Civil War; the Democrats in the Depression.
I'm no prophet, but looking at the political landscape and our national economy, Iraq et al., it is hard to see that we are not on the cusp of another such time (sad and tragic as that in and of itself is). We need leaders that are more than "me too" types. Bryan may not have had his opportunity, but some Democrat will, let's make sure he is a strong progressive, and not just a Republican-lite.