Letter From DC: So Goes Congressional Partisanship, So Goes the Washington Holiday Party Season

By , Columnist

December used to be the season of holiday parties throughout Washington, sponsored by associations and companies with business before the federal government, offering an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans alike to lift a glass together and reflect upon the past Congressional session and look forward to the next.

Those days are over.

The holiday parties are still occurring, yet they have become just as partisan as the city’s noxious climate, extending the political divide between the two factions to simple acts of holiday season socializing. “[The party scene] is no different than what’s happening up on the Hill,” observed Nancy Shaffer, president of Bravo! Events By Design. “There seems to be an unstated rule that you can’t be seen with your political rival.”

Nancy Shaffer.jpgIt’s gotten so bad, one prominent association has scheduled informal “shifts” in an effort to draw attendees to its soiree. Democrats are being encouraged to attend during the first half of the scheduled party, while Republicans will then close the place down. “There’s a real concern about appearing to be ‘cavorting with the enemy,’” said a staffer with the association with decidedly unpartisan issues. “We’d like to alleviate any concern members and their staff may have in attending our function.”

Event planners around the city can trace the demise of the bipartisan holiday party to 2007, when the economy tanked and Barack Obama’s election unleashed an unprecedented level of partisanship marked by a viciousness and a bunker mentality that punishes those that stray from the fold, even in a social setting.

“It’s required a huge strategic shift in my business planning,” Shaffer said. Rather than produce “wow, first impression” events, Shaffer is integrating marketing and perception strategies in the philanthropic and non-profit worlds. “We want our events to be thought-provoking and a call to action,” she explained.

Likewise, the Washington party industry has shifted from big ticket events intended to attract the city’s dealmakers from both sides of the aisle to more targeted get-togethers with team and morale building within the organizations as the primary objective.

Lynne Breaux.jpg“Ostentatious is out, austerity is in,” said Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, whose members have seen an uptick in business as DC looks to more modest turn-key affairs in the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene, which has seen 142 new establishments open since the dark days of 2007. “But, people are always going to party.”

As good as it’s going for her members, though, Breaux laments the loss of political socialization she made available in her past life as owner/proprietor of Tunnicliff’s, a neighborhood tavern on Capitol Hill across the street from the venerable Eastern Market. “Louisiana Senators John Breaux (a Democrat) and Trent Lott (a Republican) were regular visitors together,” she recalled.

You might have seen Newt Gingrich and current Democrat Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta even share a beer and some conversation as well. “One of the main reasons we socialize is to share conversation, preferably with those that might have different viewpoints. Unfortunately, it seems we have lost those days,” Breaux said.

tunni's.jpgThat doesn’t mean some DC insiders are not for a lack of trying. An energy conservation lobbyist who builds bridges on the issue — environmental benefits to the left, cost-savings and efficiency to the right — has opened her home to her firm’s holiday party to try and provide a comfortable setting for divergent audiences.

“If I can get folks from the Sierra Club and Chevron to have a glass of wine together, it shouldn’t be so hard for a Democrat and a Republican to do the same,” said the lobbyist loathe to be named because the last thing any lobbyist wants is to be named. “But it’s gotten harder and harder every year, just like it’s gotten harder and harder every year to get anything passed — even if there is consensus — because political scorecards are more important than actual issues.”

holiday event.jpgOne unintended consequence of the public’s disfavor with cozy relationships in Washington, legitimately prompted by the Abramoff lobbying scandal, combined with hyper-partisanship is the lost opportunity to find common ground. One is less inclined to publicly screw another with whom they have shared a cocktail.

The late night card games are gone, the late night and mostly innocent carousing by “friends” of different parties are gone, and any efforts at bipartisan solutions to the nation’s real and very serious problems are long gone.

Pity that the pettiness has extended even to an innocuous celebration of the holiday season. Just maybe that sharing of a slice of ham and a glass of red wine could signal a thawing of the vitriol.

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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