Not a single Republican voted in favor of the president’s economic rescue plan. Conservatives would apparently rather go back to the 1980s.

Was it all just a waste of time? In order to gain support for his $820 billion economic rescue plan and to win over as many conservative congressional representatives as possible, Barack Obama spent days flattering and beguiling Republicans. On the evening before his inauguration, he threw a banquet for his former opponent, John McCain. He invited well-known conservatives to the White House during the first week of his administration. He sent his closest economic advisors as well as his chief of staff on promotional tours and he visited Congress personally to exchange views with selected Republican senators and representatives.

But flattery got him nowhere. Not a single Republican voted in favor of his economic plan. Even 11 Democrats deserted him. The fact that the bill passed 244 to 188 was due solely to the Democrats’ overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives. That wasn’t the way Obama had expected his first dealings with Congress to go. He had promised to bury the political hatchet and put forth new policies designed to garner broad, bipartisan support. But the old battle lines remained in place on Wednesday with Republicans and Democrats apparently implacably opposed to one another.

Still, it would be premature to say that his vision of conciliatory politics has already failed. The Senate must first have its say, and the battle lines are far less clearly defined there. It is entirely possible the Senate will modify and expand the bill, thus giving House members another opportunity to vote in favor of it.

Moreover, the second half of the week will also see the Republican Party begin to reshape itself. Conservatives will meet at the Washington Hilton to choose a new national chairman and to decide on future strategy. Obama’s rescue plan comes at exactly the wrong time because it conflicts with the Republican image and upsets many of their most closely held principles. The $700 billion Bush bailout plan for the financial industry had already hit home with Republicans because they publicly preached that government should stay out of the market, that markets worked best if they were self-regulating, that government intervention causes only chaos that results in bloated bureaucracies and eventually lead straight to socialism.

Obama’s rescue plan is now bringing up moral issues in Republican ranks. Republicans have believed for years that reducing taxes alone would stimulate the economy. The more money individuals and businesses were allowed to hold on to, the more they would spend and invest and the better off they would be. Theoretically. Tax money used to improve infrastructure, to build new roads and repair schools, for early childhood development and health care, to develop alternative energy sources and public transportation was and still is to them an expression of liberal wastefulness and therefore the work of Satan.

Now, it’s not as if Republican presidents have always ruled as tightfisted, thrifty commissars and reigned in government spending. Whenever it suited their purposes, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush threw hard-earned American tax money away with both hands. Government bureaucracy grew under both presidents and both left enormous budget deficits behind when they left office. Theory and practice are definitely two different things.

In spite of it all, now that things are going badly for Republicans and the nation, many conservatives want to return to a time when everything was going better for them, preferably back to the 1980s, back to Ronald Reagan and his dictum that government wasn’t the solution, it was the problem.

It’s just a shame that that era and its problems are now being glossed over. It’s a shame that Republicans feel the need for change but are so deeply insecure that they can come up with no middle ground. That makes bipartisan rule difficult and complicates the role of Republicans as a constructive opposition. But Obama and that opposition are just beginning this new epoch.