Obama's digression into the meaning of bipartisanship last night was important for two reasons. The first was obvious: It's important to understand how the president defines the concept. And he was pretty clear. "I can't sort of define bipartisanship as simply being willing to accept certain theories of theirs that we tried for eight years and didn't work and the American people voted to change," he said. Rather, bipartisanship is "if I'm taking some of your ideas and giving you credit for good ideas." In other words, it's a process, not an outcome.
The second is that Obama had a specific example in mind. "I've said this to people like Mitch McConnell," he recalled. "I said, look, on health care reform, you may not agree with me that we should have a public plan. That may be philosophically just too much for you to swallow. On the other hand, there are some areas like reducing the costs of medical malpractice insurance where you do agree with me. If I'm taking some of your ideas and giving you credit for good ideas, the fact that you didn't get 100 percent can't be a reason every single time to oppose my position."
There's not much ambiguity there. Obama is implying that he thinks it illegitimate for Republicans to oppose health reform based solely on the existence of a public plan. Or, put the other way, he's suggesting that he genuinely believes the final bill should include a public plan and Republicans should learn to live with that. In Obama's preferred world, a bipartisan bill will have elements that some Republicans and some Democrats have trouble accepting. In the Republicans' preferred world, a bipartisan bill will be restricted to elements that neither Republicans nor Democrats have trouble accepting. It's a vision where cooperation drags legislation down to the lowest partisan denominator.