When a party refuses to consider bipartisanship

Ezra Klein asked this week whether it’s even possible for President Obama to be bipartisan given congressional Republicans’ approach to governance.

Let’s say you were the Democratic president of the United States, and you wanted to cut a deal with the Republican Party on the debt ceiling. What would you do?

Well, you’d probably start with quiet negotiations to give both sides maximum room to compromise. And then you’d go back to what Republicans had said about deficit reduction in March, which is that a successful plan would be about 85 percent spending cuts and 15 percent tax increases, and you’d offer them that. Your base wouldn’t like it, of course, but hey, you want a deal.

And let’s say you wanted to cut a deal on health-care reform. Presumably, you’d go back to past health-care reform plans the Republican Party had offered and try to craft something similar. You’d notice that Republicans particularly seemed to like the individual mandate — no surprise, given that they invented the thing — so even though you opposed it during the campaign, maybe you’d add that. Sure, liberals wanted Medicare for All, or an employer mandate, but hey, you want a deal.

Global warming? Well, Republicans came up with cap-and-trade in the 1990s, and in 2007, Newt Gingrich had said he’d “strongly support” extending it to carbon emissions, so that’d be an obvious approach.

The point, of course, is that Ezra described President Obama’s approach to enacting his agenda. In 2008, then-candidate Obama promised voters he’d be pragmatic and fair, solving problems by embracing ideas from both parties, building consensus, and trying to bridge the partisan divide.

It’s gone largely unnoticed, but it’s hard to overstate the extent to which Obama kept his word. But dysfunction, partisan acrimony, and gridlock all continue to get considerably worse, due entirely to the deliberate choices of congressional Republicans.

I’ve lost count of how many Republicans ideas Democrats have agreed to accept, only to find that GOP leaders have begun rejecting their own ideas.

As recently as 2008, it was very common for Republican officials at a variety of levels to support cap-and-trade, an individual health care mandate, the DREAM Act, comprehensive immigration reform, trying terrorist suspects in civilian U.S. courts and then imprisoning them on American soil, a payroll tax cut, a bipartisan deficit commission, infrastructure spending, the Economic Development Administration, routinely raising the debt ceiling without preconditions, and funding for Planned Parenthood. If we go back just a little further, we see that GOP officials also used to occasionally support modest tax increases as a way to maintain fiscal sanity.

As recently as three months ago, House Republicans wanted a deficit-reduction plan that included 85% spending cuts and 15% increased revenue.

Now, literally all of these policies aren’t just deemed problematic by Republicans, but are rejected as wholly unacceptable extremism. This week, the leading Senate Republican went so far as to characterize Democratic support for bipartisan compromises as “acting in bad faith.”

Seriously. That’s what he said.

How did all of these policies — some of which originated in Republican circles — go from sensible to radical? The ideas didn’t change; Republican standards did. A Democratic president got elected, telegraphed an openness to proposals the GOP has traditionally supported, and suddenly Republicans didn’t want to take “yes” for an answer anymore.

To Ezra’s question, how is President Obama supposed to work in a bipartisan fashion under these circumstances? He isn’t. I assume that next year, one of the more common complaints from the GOP will be, “Obama said he’d bring people together and reach across the aisle. He failed.”

But he really didn’t. He made good faith efforts to work cooperatively with Republicans, only to find GOP officials who are against the ideas they’re for.