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Bipartisanship: Republicans Still Think It's "Date Rape"

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Conservative ideologue, Republican strategist and obsessed slayer of any and all taxes large and small, Grover Norquist, once referred to bipartisanship - in his trademark subtle manner - as "date rape". While I personally don't subscribe to that line of thinking, it would be best for the Obama administration to understand that many of Norquist's friends and colleagues do.

If the past week has proven anything, it is this fact.

Bipartisanship - or in this particular case, working across the aisle to achieve the landmark legislation that is required in this time of crisis - is noble in its intent and a superior way of conducting business in a democracy. But as the kids say these days, the devil's in the details.

So what am I getting at here? Well, quite frankly, there is a middle ground between George Bush-style, temper-tantrum-laden Deciderism and reaching out to every atavistic crank and rightwing extremist with a colourful flag lapel pin and contempt for all objective discovery post-Copernicus. It is in this middle ground where the Obama administration must live.

In other words, there is no problem sitting down with the likes of George Will and John Boehner to try and charm the opposition - although I might recommend a full-body condom and inoculations just for safety's sake. But publicly expressing your wish for 80 votes in the Senate in favour of your economic stimulus bill (which means getting the votes of slightly more than half the Republican caucus) and agreeing to more and more tax cuts that only serve as a stimulus for those who have forgotten to take their erectile dysfunction pills in corporate boardrooms and conservative conference halls is too large a price to pay with an economy on the precipice.

There is an oft-repeated truism that good policy makes good politics. Then it should be no surprise that kowtowing to a group of blowhards with whom 15-25% of the public identifies on any given issue makes absolutely no sense. Are there still sensible Republicans out there? Absolutely (recent evidence, notwithstanding).

On a variety of matters, particularly those pesky social issues, Republican senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania can and should be engaged. On foreign policy, Dick Lugar of Indiana is a welcomed voice and someone with whom Barack Obama has enjoyed a warm relationship in the past. Foreign policy might also be an area of agreement with Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, and perhaps some fiscal measures too.

Believe it or not, senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, motivated not to have his lasting legacy be a below-the-belt campaign, might also come along for the ride on some issues, and where he goes, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina usually follows quite eagerly. Other sometimes "mavericky" Republican senators, such as Mel Martinez of Florida, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire have their moments. Even Orrin Hatch of Utah can be surprisingly reasonable every so often.

Obviously there is a similar (albeit very small) list in the House. And one thing the Obama team has done brilliantly is add individuals with legislative know-how to the team, starting off with former leaders in both chambers in chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel (House) and secretary of health and human services Tom Daschle (Senate), not to mention longtime Republican House member, Ray LaHood, as secretary of transportation.

But the Jim DeMints of the world, who voted against Hillary Clinton as secretary of state (along with fellow ethical guru and noted prostitute-sampler David Vitter, in opposition to 94 of their colleagues), complained about a lack of "God" in the new Capitol Visitor Centre and led the fight against any reasonable response to our economic meltdown, are simply not worth a moment wasted. If DeMint, a majority of his caucus in the Senate and a similar proportion of Republicans in the House wish to do their best impersonation of the Republican party circa-1929, those individuals simply need to be isolated and ignored for being the crackpots that they are.

There is a rough consensus on what needs to be done economically, with regard to foreign policy and on important social issues that spans the gamut from the left to centre-right. Yet as Paul Krugman put it, when discussing the Obama stimulus plan that everyone from Boehner to senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (and pathetically, McCain too) has publicly complained about:

As the debate over President Obama's economic stimulus plan gets under way, one thing is certain: many of the plan's opponents aren't arguing in good faith. Conservatives really, really don't want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don't want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending.

To put it another way, as Obama recently did when Republicans were demanding more of their ideas be included: "I won." And he, and Democrats running for offices across the country, didn't just win. They mopped the floor with the Republicans two elections in a row.

Bipartisanship should be sought when reasonable Republicans come to the table in good faith. But when demagogues use false issues such as "contraception funding" (that would be you John Boehner) or false numbers such as the cost-per-job created, these are men and women not to be appeased. In fact, I'd recommend that you think to yourself: What would Dick Cheney do if Senator Pat Leahy were approaching him in the Capitol with a hearty handshake and a smile?

Because with their bogus policy complaints that seek to sink the Obama administration for partisan purposes and take this country toward economic catastrophe and endless war, they are repeating that most infamous of epithets to you, President Obama, each and every day.

UPDATE: Obviously this was written before the House vote on the stimulus package, which I think proves the points made here. Zero votes against a new depression for purely partisan purposes. They must be so proud.

A version of this was first published in my Guardian column