Bipartisanship was dead long before Obama moved into the White House, the victim of long-running political trends.

Here's a question for those who think they follow Washington seriously: What president signed into law the largest tax cut in U.S. history?


No, it wasn't Ronald Reagan, that famous tax-cutter. No, it wasn't George W. Bush, who acted like tax cuts were the answer to every question. The $1.35 trillion tax cut Bush signed in 2001 was almost as big as this year's federal deficit, but it was spread out over 10 years.


It was Barack Obama, who a year ago signed the largest tax cut in history: $288 billion over two years. That was his first mistake.


Not because the tax cuts didn't help the economy, though it would be hard to prove they did. Most added a few bucks to the paychecks of 90 percent of American workers and were barely noticed. Seniors and others on fixed incomes were sent $250 checks, eliciting no apparent gratitude.


The stimulus also included the "Cash for Clunkers" program and $8,000 tax credits for first-time homebuyers. These have been derided as Band-Aids, but Band-Aids get a bad rap. When you're waiting for a wound to heal or a wounded auto industry or housing market sometimes Band-Aids are just what the doctor ordered.


Obama's mistake was thinking that including tax cuts in his stimulus package, he'd win the votes of Republicans who still tout tax cuts as an economic cure-all. He thought they made the stimulus bipartisan, but not a single Republican voted for it.


The Republicans took the tax cuts, just as they took the stimulus billions that helped state and local governments survive withering budget crises and the federal investments in their home districts. Then they badmouthed the stimulus bill all the way to the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.


Obama's pursuit of bipartisanship didn't work then, and it's unlikely to work this week, as Democrats meet with Republicans at Blair House in a quest for a new, bipartisan, approach to health care reform.


The problems with Congress run deep and wide. Part of the current paralysis, several commentators have noted, is that Democrats and Republicans define bipartisanship differently.


To Democrats, bipartisanship means grand bargains: a stimulus bill that includes both tax cuts and federal investments; health care reform that brings both universal coverage and reins in Medicare spending; immigration reform that both tightens enforcement and gives illegal immigrants a shot at citizenship; deficit reduction that includes both tax hikes and spending cuts.


But to Republicans, Ross Douthat writes in The New York Times, bipartisanship "means doing just those things that legislators of both parties can agree on." In practice, that's a "heads I win, tails you lose" proposition. It means Republicans will deign to support exactly those parts of the president's agenda that are identical to their agenda.


If that. Lately the Republicans have started withdrawing their support from initiatives they sponsored notably a bill calling for a congressional commission to tackle the deficit as soon as Obama jumps on board. It's hard not to conclude that they are more interested in seeing Obama fail than helping the country succeed.


But bipartisanship was dead long before Obama moved into the White House, the victim of long-running political trends.


Over the last few decades, state legislatures used ever more sophisticated techniques to create House districts that were safe for incumbents. Democrats were sliced out of Republican districts, Republicans cut from Democratic districts. The result was House candidates who no longer had to court moderate voters and who were more likely to be threatened in a primary by someone who thought the incumbent wasn't ideologically pure enough.


The need to stay on good terms with an ideologically extreme base discourages lawmakers from even being seen with someone from the other party, let alone working with them to forge bipartisan legislation.


Then there's the money. It takes millions to win and hold office, more millions each election cycle. That strengthens the hand of the special interests that can raise large amounts of cash, as well as the hands of the Internet ideologues. It also forces Congress members to spend more time back in the district squeezing donors, and that means less time in Washington.


In an earlier age even 20 years ago Congress members forged friendships across party lines. Their kids went to school together; they socialized and played golf together. Washington old-timers say those times are over.


It all adds up to a political culture in Washington where your opponents are now thought of as your enemies. Those attitudes are mirrored in the new media, where people increasingly prefer to get their news from cable stations and Web sites that reinforce their politics.


"People are almost in a parallel universe," Rep. Barney Frank, D-Newton, said last week. "They are not getting a common set of facts and most of the people they talk to are those who agree with them."


But there's one thing on which Americans have come to a remarkable, bipartisan agreement: Congress is a mess. A new survey from the Center for Congress at Indiana University found 77 percent disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job. When asked, "Do you believe that the delays in Congress are due to serious differences on the issues, or that members just like to bicker and score political points?" 65 percent said politicians just like to bicker.


People are starting to talk about major reforms to attack Congressional dysfunction, from fixing the filibuster to a constitutional convention. But with the mid-term campaign in full swing, it's hard to imagine anything happening soon that will revive the corpse that bipartisanship has become.


Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the newspaper.