There’s a lot of talk these days about bipartisanship and the lack thereof. One the one hand, we have cartoon characters like Richard Mourdock and peevish pundits like George Will decrying the very idea. (In a recent column, Will attacks all the bad ideas that have become law as a result of the dreaded cooperation across party lines.) On the other hand, we have well-meaning citizens and numerous other pundits despairing over the disappearance of that same co-operation.

Absent from this conversation is any recognition of the difference between goal and strategy–the difference between substance and method that determines when bipartisanship is appropriate and when it is not.

No sane person (granted, the numbers falling in that category have dwindled dangerously) promotes “compromising” with, say, genocide. But neither do sane people try to hold the country hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and thereby throwing the entire globe into financial depression, in order to get their own way about something.

As with so many other aspects of our efforts to live with one another in something approximating civility, an all-or-nothing mind-set is a hindrance. The question is not: should there be bipartisanship no matter what the goal? The question is: can we work together when the common good clearly requires that we do so? Reasonable people (again, a vanishing breed) can and will disagree about what the common good requires. Bipartisanship–rightly understood–is a good-faith effort by members of both parties to determine the extent to which they agree on what the common good requires, and to come to as much agreement as possible on the methods for achieving those ends. We used to believe that getting 70% of what you want is preferable to taking your ball and bat and going home, getting none of it. (Okay, I’ve mixed my metaphors….)

There is a lot of agreement (at least rhetorically) about the nation’s problems. There is less agreement on the best way to address those problems. That’s not new. What is missing these days is a willingness to engage in the sort of give and take that gives us at least partial progress toward solving pressing issues. What’s new is the willingness of the GOP to take the country down in service of ideological purity.

Call it absence of bipartisanship, call it zealotry, call it partisanship gone wild. Whatever you call it, it bespeaks a depressing absence of the good faith and integrity citizens have a right to expect from those we entrust with the nation’s business.