Of all the great American political traditions, there is perhaps none more instructive than the progressive tendency to sentimentalize Republicans from years past. You can effectively set your watch by it: Whatever Republican ran for office four or eight or twelve years ago is bound to be looked upon far more favorably than whatever Republican is currently on the ticket.
At no time is this phenomenon more apparent than during the madhouse 2016 election, which has caused many on the left to take a misty-eyed walk down Republican Memory Lane. At the Washington Post back in March, Dana Milbank admitted, “Donald Trump makes me miss George W. Bush.” Milbank actually said the same thing in 2014 in response to the rise of the Tea Party. Yet at the same time he claimed that, were Bush still in office, “we might be at war with Iran and North Korea by now, and perhaps Portugal.”
Got that? When it’s convenient, a Republican president can be bad enough to lead us into World War III; when stacked up next to contemporary Republicans, however, that same president can evoke warm fuzzies and good feelings. How nice!
The same thing is happening this season with Mitt Romney, who just four short years ago was the Health-Care-Stealing Demon from Hell, a man who — if you believed liberals — may or may not have personally murdered several cancer-stricken Americans, a man who was a raging homophobe and a dog-killer, a guy who was so retrograde that he said things like “binders full of women.” He was the worst.
Well, this year he’s up for sainthood in the Church of Progressivism. One fellow has produced a series of tweets from writer Baratunde Thurston, two of them (from 2012) mocking Mitt’s “binders” comment and one (from this month) fondly reminiscing about it: “I would kill for ‘binders full of women right now’ [sic],” he wrote. “To have a candidate bragging about the search for competent women, not assaulting them.” What a difference four years makes.
Over the summer, prominent Democratic politicians and operatives positively gushed about Romney’s sterling character. “He was in it for the right reasons,” said Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager from 2012. Obama’s campaign secretary from the same year, Ben LaBolt, claimed that “I don’t think anybody would have truly expected the country to go to hell in a handbasket” if Romney won the election.
This is, of course, utterly laughable; liberals in 2012 claimed that Romney would be a “disaster” for women, that he and “capitalist extremists” wanted to “destroy America,” that, in the event of a Romney presidency, we’d “be at war and pretty soon there won’t be any more Medicare or Social Security plus the rich will keep getting richer and abortion will be illegal in most of the country.” President Barack Obama accused Romney of wanting to take the United States back to “policies more suited to the 1950s,” a not so subtle suggestion that a Romney presidency would subjugate women to inferior second-class status; the Obama campaign went so far as to imply that Romney’s policies would ruin women’s lives at every step of their lives. Joe Biden implied that Romney would re-enslave black Americans.
Now that Romney’s not running for office, it is safe for liberals to praise him.
This was the general tenor of the liberal camp in 2012: that Romney was potentially the very worst thing to happen to America in a hundred years or more. Now that he’s not running for office, though, it is safe for liberals to praise him.
These days you can actually see this happening within the same election. When the leaked Trump audiotape was recently released, many people began to consider the possibility of getting Trump off the ticket and having Mike Pence — sane, normal grownup without a penchant for sexual assault — replace him as the Republican candidate for president. Not so fast: “Donald Trump is certainly terrible,” wrote Newsweek, “but Mike Pence may well be worse.” On Twitter, many were speculating along the same lines. “Having Pence in power,” according to Vox, “would be just as bad for women, if not worse, than Trump would be.” It’s one of the most ironclad rules of American politics: the next Republican is always the Worst Republican Ever.
This tells us something rather poignant about liberal political philosophy — namely, that it exists less as a coherent and workable set of political and public-policy beliefs and more as a fanatical, oppositional vehicle for hysterics who shriek and faint whenever a new Republican walks onto the scene. It is entirely conceivable that, in 2024 if not sooner, progressives will be praising Donald Trump as a model of sanity and morality and denouncing the new Republican candidate as a dangerous extremist. “Say what you want about Donald Trump,” they’ll wail, “but at least he was in the race for the right reasons.” Repeat ad infinitum.
It’s perfectly understandable, of course, that liberals will be opposed to Republicans currently running for office. But is it too much to ask that they stop pretending to be best friends with the ones who have retired?