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Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, Republican Saxby Chambliss, Georgia’s senior senator, was considered a steadfast conservative. The American Conservative Union has given him a lifetime score of 92, while the Club for Growth has scored him at 83. He earns an A from the National Rifle Association.

But a couple of years ago, Chambliss embarked upon an exercise that would merely have cemented his stature as a power broker as recently as the administration of George W. Bush: He joined Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, to form a bipartisan group of senators working to come up with a deal to whittle down the deficit. In other words, he considered compromise with Democrats.

In our current warped political universe, that was enough to earn Chambliss a potential challenger from the right, and he decided not to seek re-election. Chastened by Chambliss’ experience, none of the Georgia Republicans running for his vacant seat wants to occupy the same ZIP code with the words “compromise” and “bipartisan.”

This is what the Grand Old Party has come to: It’s now led by nihilists whose only politics are those of destruction and whose only values are those of zealots. There may be reasonable Republicans remaining in office, but they’ve been bullied into compliance and cowed into silence.

If you don’t believe that, listen to the growing drumbeat for the impeachment of President Obama — despite the glaring lack of evidence that he has committed impeachable offenses. (Having the temerity to win a second term is not an impeachable crime.) While such talk was once restricted to the nutters — men like U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI), who has said the president’s impeachment would “be a dream come true” — it has leaked into the GOP’s water supply.

Witness the recent off-the-cuff remarks of Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who, though a standard-bearer for the hard right, has been considered a thoughtful and rational man. At a recent meeting with constituents, Coburn declared that the president was coming “perilously close” to the standards for impeachment.

Last month, at a tribute in his honor, the retiring Chambliss obliquely urged his party to come to its senses. He didn’t explicitly mention the GOP’s spiral into right-wing madness, but he did speak of the importance of his work with the Gang of Six, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I don’t mind crossing party lines. If Republicans had a patent on all the good ideas, we’d be in power forever. We don’t have a patent on all those good ideas,” he said.

But his intended audience has taken another lesson from Chambliss’ bipartisanship: If you even consider it, you will be labeled a RINO — Republican In Name Only — by the tea party activists who now wield enormous power in the Republican Party. Having chased Chambliss off, they have taken to hectoring Georgia’s junior Republican senator, Johnny Isakson, for his failure to jump with enthusiasm to the idea of shutting down the government over Obamacare.

Tea Party types have also targeted longtime senator Lamar Alexander, Republican from Tennessee. In a letter urging Alexander to retire, they claimed that “our great nation can no longer afford compromise and bipartisanship, two traits for which you have become famous.”

In response, Alexander penned a remarkable op-ed in The Tennessean defending his record as a politician who has occasionally reached across the aisle. “I know that if you only have 45 votes and you need 60 senators to get something important done like balancing the budget and fixing the debt, then you have to work with other people — that is, IF you really care about solving the problem, IF you really want to get a result, instead of just making a speech,” he wrote.

However, such time-honored traditions of governance have little effect on the white-hot rage of radicals who want to toss out any conservative who remembers the lessons of his middle-school civics classes. They have no respect for the basic give-and-take on which representative democracies thrive, no real interest in improving the nation’s fortunes. So, no, Senator Alexander, they don’t care about solving problems.

(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

Photo by Bruce Tuten/Flickr

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