Thursday was set to be a big day for Democrats and liberals. Their biggest superstar, former president Barack Obama, was getting back into politics for the first time since leaving the White House in January.
With events for gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia, Obama aimed to bring back excitement in the Democratic base just weeks before those states are set to vote.
But it wasn’t Obama who got liberals excited Thursday. It was another ex-president, a person this group once loathed: George W. Bush.
Since he left the White House nine years ago, George W. Bush has largely stayed out of politics. He was focused on painting (remember his artwork?), helping veterans, and serving up camera-ready photos of himself alongside the Obamas. Meanwhile, his public persona was fostered in part through his daughter’s burgeoning television career on NBC — where he became known more as Jenna’s dad than a former commander in chief — and through his brother’s presidential campaign last year.
But he stepped firmly back into the political spotlight Thursday with a blistering speech in New York City, where he rejected much of what Trump represents, even if he didn’t call out the sitting Republican president by name.
“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism,” Bush observed to the crowd. “We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty . . . Argument turns too easily into animosity.”
After a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville this summer, Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, issued a statement denouncing violence there. On Thursday, he added what appeared to be a veiled swipe at Trump. The nation’s identity, he said, hinges on the idea “that bigotry and white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed, and it means the very identity of our nation depends on passing along civic ideals.’’
The reaction was swift and overwhelmingly positive. Even liberals, who have long vilified Bush, had nice things to say about the former president’s speech, calling it “powerful” and “poignant.” As one Twitter user put it: “You know times are weird when Bush gives a speech that makes him look like the kindly uncle telling you to ignore your racist grandfather.”
Perhaps those responses were infused with the glee that comes in seeing the last Republican president trash the current one. Or perhaps, as some said, it was nice to see political discourse take on a more civil tone. Either way, Bush was soon trending on Twitter. A story about his speech was one of the best read articles of the day on BostonGlobe.com.
Obama’s big coming-out that day was a side note.
He’s not the first prominent Republican to give a major speech that was sharply critical of Trump. Mitt Romney delivered his case against Trump during the presidential primary campaign. John McCain on Monday compared this moment in the United States to the early stages of the formation of Nazi Germany.
Conciliatory speeches have long recast how liberals think about former enemies. But few Republicans, from Romney to McCain to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, are as detested by liberals as Bush.
For years, Bush was Republican enemy No. 1. He was the politician that Democrats thought stole the presidential election in 2000. He was the one who pushed the WMD narrative that got the United States into war with Iraq. His administration’s inept handling of Hurricane Katrina, to them, was government at its worst. And then, in a final insult, the collapse of the economy and the beginning of the Great Recession during his final year in office led many to blame him for job losses and their ability to retire.
The fact that those same liberals now praise him for anything can be hard to fathom.
In some ways, our attitudes towards retired presidents often tend to soften. With the passage of time, and the move away from engagement in day-to-day politics, any bad feelings tend to fade. Bush, in particular, has been careful to work on his image as a grandfather and former statesman. He didn’t criticize Obama in office, and then there are all those photo ops with the Clintons, usually in a philanthropic setting.
And then of course there is the power of the Trump presidency to unify his opponents.
Maybe all of that really is enough to make even the most liberal activists reconsider just how bad they believed Bush was. No one is fantasizing that an age of partisan politics might soon be behind us. But it could signal a more open-minded approach as we head towards the midterm elections and the next presidential race in 2020.
If we can put the “Where are the WMDs?” signs back in the garage, anything’s possible.James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.