With Democratic lawmakers alleging that President Donald Trump’s policies are immoral, that his objectives are ethnic and racial cleansing, and with grassroots liberal activists continuing to insist that the president is a fascist, it’s hard to envision a liberal effort to rehabilitate the president’s image once he’s out of office. Hard, but not impossible. After all, it seems like almost every Republican gets a reputation makeover from their ideological opponents when their political power is spent. Especially if it helps Democrats cast the current iteration of the GOP as beyond the pale.
As we speculate on Trump’s fate, Sen. Mitt Romney’s experience is instructive. Today, the former Republicans presidential nominee is positively beloved by his erstwhile detractors in the Democratic Party, but only insofar as he represents a desirable contrast with the Republican president.
“He’s the modern voice Republicans need,” said, of all people, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this week. “I like him.” Reid added that he hoped Romney would challenge Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020 because, in part, it “would be good for the country.” That’s quite a reversal from 2012 when Reid alleged without evidence that Romney “didn’t pay taxes for ten years”—the ethics of which he later defended on the grounds that it helped to keep Romney out of the White House.
Reid is only the latest Democrat to see Romney in a new light. “Doesn’t Mitt Romney look good to us now? Oh my God,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said shortly after Trump’s election. She declined to revisit her 2012 allegations that Romney was a misogynist, a serial liar, and racially antagonistic. Throughout 2016, Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection team mourned the loss of dignity that Romney brought to the presidential race. They didn’t dwell on their efforts to imply that he had committed felony securities fraud and suggest that he was complicit in at least one negligent homicide. Even Barack Obama insisted that Romney’s fitness for office and desire to serve the country was beyond a doubt. In 2012, he called his opponent a “bulls***er,” and Obama’s running mate suggested that the GOP wanted to reinstate black slavery.
Romney hasn’t changed, but the Democratic Party’s political objectives sure have. As Reid admitted, as a morally upstanding avatar of the GOP that was, Romney serves as a “great foil” for Donald Trump and the Republican Party he leads. Romney’s experience here is not unique. For Democrats, the last Republican was always the best Republican.
When the Tea Party appeared ascendant within the GOP, George W. Bush’s liberal critics suddenly discovered a lot to love about the 43rd President. Vox.com’s Matt Yglesias penned a wistful retrospective on the “positive aspects of the Bush presidency.” From Medicare Part D to No Child Left Behind, from PEPFAR to immigration reform; Bush’s heart was in the right place. Think Progress scribe Ian Millhiser added Bush’s support for increased fuel-efficiency standards and an increased federal minimum wage to the list of things “we miss about George W. Bush and the neoconservatives.”
The notion that Ronald Reagan’s views would be so at odds with today’s GOP that he would be shunned and marginalized is almost clichéd. When the GOP was having its Tea Party moment, liberals said Reagan would have been denied the Republican presidential nomination because he was “dangerously liberal.” When the Trumpified GOP moderated on policy but also embraced pettiness and venality, Reagan was simply too decent to appeal to a critical mass of GOP primary voters. The rationale changes, but the verdict remains the same: Yesterday’s Republican Party was just better.
And of course, there is nothing so beloved to the left as a Republican who has passed into the great beyond. Sen. John McCain was a giant in Republican politics for decades but, upon his death, “would never make it in today’s GOP.” No moderate, McCain nevertheless understood the wisdom of compromise and the folly of alienating persuadable voters. When he succumbed to cancer, McCain was more popular with Democratic than Republican voters. That condition might have shocked Democrats who looked the other way when the Obama campaign mocked the senator’s war wounds or when Democratic partisans accused the 2008 GOP nominee of appealing to racist sentiments and “inciting hate.”
The minute George H.W. Bush left us, he became “a better kind of Republican.” Not like today’s sordid bunch. He was resolute in victory, gracious in defeat, moral in his interpersonal relations, and, perhaps above all else, too moderate for the 21st-century GOP. When the 41st president was a political threat to Democratic power, he was a “wimp” who readily stoked white racial animus, shielded criminal Reagan-era officials from the justice they were due, and misled the country into the First Gulf War.
Even now-obscure Republicans are not spared the posthumous insult of the faint praise they deserved when they were alive. Though he was no shrinking violet, the late Sen. Howard Baker “stood out” for his “decency” and “patriotism,” wrote Norman Ornstein in the New Republic. But when he was a contender to win the Republican Party’s 1980 presidential nomination, the New York Times described him as “extreme” for maintaining conservative views on government spending and federalism.
With some remove from the passions of the present moment, it’s possible to imagine how Democrats will go about rehabilitating Trump. When the president was a threat only to conventional conservatives, liberals saw Trump as the lesser of 15 other evils. “Trump would probably be a better president than Rubio or Cruz. Conceivably, even a good one,” wrote New York’s Jonathan Chait. Matt Yglesias feared Rubio’s tax plan, entitlement reform, and foreign-policy preferences far more than Trump’s antagonism toward Muslims and immigrants. Yglesias even predicted with some accuracy that Rubio’s deftness as a legislator would produce a more robust legacy than a President Trump, whose wild pronouncements would be blocked by courts or watered down by Congress.
If the GOP reverts to a status quo ante conservatism and rediscovers its aversion to statism, protectionism, and minimalism on the world stage, it’s not hard to imagine a time when the left will look back on Trump with nostalgic fondness. After all, he was a moderate Republican—even a good Republican. Not like today’s GOP.