Gwen’s Take: Why Santa Likes Political Junkies

BY Gwen Ifill  December 24, 2010 at 3:30 PM EDT

Let’s face it. If you still have to go to work while everyone else is out shopping and partying and hanging mistletoe, you might as well have fun doing it.

Gridlock is not fun. Poisonous debate is not fun. Being attacked by people who go online just to attack is not fun. But this week was fun.

No matter your political persuasion, if you believe that politics well practiced is an exercise in democracy, the final week of the just-concluded lame duck Congress was an eye opener.

The debate over the New START nuclear treaty was not just a political fight. It was a reminder of how far we have come from the days when our most worrisome foreign policy threat was the possibility of nuclear attack. As we saw in London and Rome again this week, our greater threat these days comes from enemies who will never sign a treaty with anyone.

But for the U.S. to retain its role on the world stage, the START treaty (as well as the recent South Korea trade deal) was an important test of whether Barack Obama can keep his promises – at home as well as on the world stage.

The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was another test. For a time, wherever the president went this year, it seemed he could count on hecklers in the crowd. They would yell at him for not keeping his campaign promise to repeal the 17-year-old compromise that allowed gays to serve in the military if they kept their orientation to themselves.

On each occasion, the president would try to reassure the hecklers that, really, he was on their side. Rolling back the ban by fiat, he argued, would not be as effective as Congressional action.

No one was heckling at the celebratory bill-signing ceremony on Wednesday.

Dramas unfolded on the floor of the House and Senate as well. Arms were twisted and ears were bent as lawmakers made what appeared to be last-minute decisions to vote on consequential matters – including tax cuts and food safety and immigration. Once again, no matter where you came down in the argument, you had to agree that the outcome would actually affect people’s lives.

For sheer theater, watching C-SPAN easily beat hearing the latest about Lindsey Lohan elsewhere on the cable dial.

These were all gifts.

Americans said in November they wanted something to get done. They said they wanted a change of the guard. But, as it turns out, they did not give the newcomers all of the keys. The proof of the pudding was definitely going to be in the eating.

Politicians knew this. They read the polls. So they did something. And come January, the battle will be joined once again.

Perhaps instead of a lockstep return to stubbornly divided government, each side will seek opportunities for what I like to call “opportunistic bipartisanship” – a chance to make a deal when it works, and walk away when it doesn’t.

I know. It’s quite possible that I’m getting a little swept up in the goodwill of the holiday season. People seem to be rushing to open doors for me and hosting more parties than usual. I find it impossible to turn away from the carols clogging my radio.

But even if I’m wrong, and Washington returns to gridlock in less than two weeks when the new Congress returns and the Obamas complete their Hawaiian vacation, I plan to enjoy the moment for as long as it lasts.

Happy Holidays!

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.