As far as I can tell, there are competing, or at least overlapping, motives for this liberal nostalgia for the conservatives and Republicans of yesteryear. Some liberals like to romanticize and glorify conservatives from eras when they were least effective but most entertaining. Some like to cherry-pick positions from a completely different era so as to prove that holding that position today is therefore centrist.
But whatever the motivation, what unites them is the conviction that today's liberals shouldn't cede power, respect or legitimacy to today's conservatives. Hence when compassionate conservatism was ascendant, liberals lamented that the GOP wasn't more libertarian.
When, in response to the disastrous explosion in debt and spending over the Bush-Obama years, the GOP enters a libertarian phase, the same people who insisted they'd love Republicans if they became libertarian are now horrified by their "social Darwinism."
The latest twist on this hackneyed hayride is the renewed caterwauling about how Ronald Reagan couldn't even get elected today.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush reignited the topic by lamenting how Reagan couldn't be nominated today because the GOP has become too rigid and ideological for even The Gipper. I think Jeb Bush is one of the best conservative politicians in the country, but this was not his best moment. Assuming Mitt Romney gets the nomination, here are the GOP nominees since Reagan left office: Bush I, Dole (Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976), Bush II, McCain and, finally, Romney -- the Massachusetts moderate the Tea Party spent much of the last month lambasting as, well, a Massachusetts moderate.
Look at all those crazy right-wingers!
Looking at that record, any rational person would conclude that Reagan couldn't get elected today because the party has become too liberal.
Of course, the reality is more complicated than that. But the idea that Reagan's problem today would be his moderation is quite simply ridiculous.
Look where G.W. Bush's moderation got him: denounced as a crazed radical by much of the liberal establishment, despite having run as a "compassionate conservative" who, once in office, vastly expanded entitlements and worked closely with Teddy Kennedy on education reform.
Right on schedule, Dubya is now entering the rehabilitation phase.
It'll be some time before liberals bring themselves to say, "I miss George W. Bush." But already, the New York Times is proclaiming that Bush represented "mainstream conservatism," unlike today's Republicans, of course.
As always, the problem with conservatism today is today's conservatives.