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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

WASHINGTON — Just when our politics seemed destined to freeze into a brain-dead brand of partisanship, party lines started cracking up.

It is common in politics to assume that whatever has been happening will keep happening. But a series of events last week suggested that human beings — even those of a highly partisan and ideological sort — bridle at being confined in intellectual straitjackets.

Start with the progress on two of this year’s central issues, gun safety and immigration.

It was unfortunate that talks between Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Senate advocates of universal background checks were suspended because Coburn can’t quite get to yes. But the mere fact that Coburn and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) were negotiating at all, and stayed on cordial terms, means something. So did the vote that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) cast in the Judiciary Committee in favor of a bill to make it a federal crime to purchase firearms for another person.

The anti-trafficking measure is the first step toward a sensible gun violence package, and the indefatigable Schumer is not giving up on finding additional Republicans to join Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in support of a strong bill on background checks.

On immigration, former governor Jeb Bush showed what happens when the print deadlines for books are out of step with rapid shifts in the political winds. In Immigration Wars, co-authored with Clint Bolick, Bush came out for legalizing the situation of undocumented immigrants but against giving them a path to citizenship. His book dropped at a moment when leading voices in his party (notably Sen. Marco Rubio, his fellow Florida Republican) have embraced citizenship as a goal.

I hope Secretary of State John Kerry, trashed by a certain Bush brother as a flip-flopper in the 2004 presidential campaign, was entertained by the sight of Jeb Bush’s scrambling to adjust himself to new political realities. But let’s be charitable and take the younger Bush’s evolution as another sign that the ice is breaking in places where it once seemed 30 feet thick.

This is not only a matter of Republicans moving the Democrats’ way. Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster against President Obama’s drone policy shook philosophical categories in a remarkably healthy way.

On the one side were Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-AZ), staunchly defending Obama against their Tea Party colleague. On the other, many liberals — including Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson — praised Paul for opening up a debate we badly need.