Tire rims and anthrax

John Cole had a paragraph a while back that always stuck in my head.

I really don’t understand how bipartisanship is ever going to work when one of the parties is insane. Imagine trying to negotiate an agreement on dinner plans with your date, and you suggest Italian and she states her preference would be a meal of tire rims and anthrax. If you can figure out a way to split the difference there and find a meal you will both enjoy, you can probably figure out how bipartisanship is going to work the next few years.

John wrote this on February 5, 2009 — just two weeks after President Obama’s inauguration.

It stayed with me, not just because it’s funny, but because it was prescient. Obama walked in the door on day one ready to compromise. All that rhetoric during the campaign about finding common ground and working with people of good faith with a sense of common purpose? Obama actually meant all of that. He sincerely believed he could work with both parties, bridge partisan gaps, and bring people together. That ’08 schtick wasn’t an act; this guy was genuine. The new president desperately wanted bipartisanship, and felt the country would benefit from it.

It quickly became apparent that Republicans had other ideas. Being open to reason wasn’t one of them. Compromising with the president with the outstretched hand wasn’t either.

But John’s “tire rims and anthrax” line came when Democrats enjoyed large majorities in both the House and Senate, and the nature of compromise in Washington effectively meant figuring out what Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Joe Lieberman, and Ben Nelson could tolerate.

What we didn’t know was that there would soon be a GOP-led House. The need for bipartisan compromise became literally unavoidable, but the same dynamic was made even more painful: we not only need to find a middle ground between Italian food and anthrax, failure to do so will mean economic collapse.

With this in mind, I found Jonathan Bernstein’s take on just how far apart Democrats and Republicans are in the debt talks quite compelling.

The Democrats … well, it depends on exactly who we’re talking about, but the median point among Congressional Democrats is probably something like this: keep spending at current levels with growth at GDP levels for most things, cut a fair bit from defense, let the Bush tax cuts expire, and fully implement ACA including the cost controls but with a public option added on. That gets the deficit under control — something that a lot of Democrats honestly seem to care about, perhaps because they’re concerned with good government and believe that large deficits undermine it.

The Republicans? Without invoking the Bachmann fringe, we can just look at what they’ve voted for already this year: return the size of the government to around where it was before Woodrow Wilson was in office. Except for the defense portion of the government, which should be roughly where it was at the height of the Cold War at an absolutely minimum. And tax cuts. It might add up, it might not; I don’t notice a whole lot of GOP concern about that (with, to be sure, some exceptions, such as Senator Tom Coburn). That was no wild bluff; virtually every House and Senate Republican voted for bills that would have implemented that agenda, including entirely unforced (albeit second-hand) votes on a Constitutional amendment this week that, title and dubious enactment mechanisms aside, was basically an attack on both the Great Society and New Deal understandings of the role of government in the US. Which they would be glad to tell anyone who is willing to listen to them.

Much of the American mainstream probably believes we have the same two modern major parties that have existed for generations — one’s center-right and the other’s center-left. They should bicker, argue, and compromise, as the system has always demanded of them.

But the status quo in 2011 isn’t normal at all. The difference today between the two major parties hasn’t been quite this dramatic since the American Civil War.

The mainstream may not fully appreciate what it means to expect bipartisan solutions in this setting.