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The obscured view from the bleachers

Associated Press

The argument that both sides are always to blame for all problems is a force so powerful inside the Beltway, it has its own gravitational pull. Even observers who know better are sometimes dragged into it, to the delight of others who've already been affected.

With this in mind, Leon Panetta caused a bit of a stir yesterday by repeating the "enough blame to go around" line the Beltway is always desperate to hear.

Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta had harsh words for everyone in Washington -- including his former boss, President Barack Obama -- urging them to come to the table to end the government shutdown and reach a deal on the debt ceiling.

At a Wall Street Journal breakfast on Monday, Panetta spread the blame for the situation across the parties.

"When you are operating by crisis, I think there's enough blame to go around," Panetta said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Though Panetta was critical of "extreme" congressional Republicans, he also said of President Obama, "You have to engage in the process. This is a town where it's not enough to feel you have the right answers. You've got to roll up your sleeves and you've got to really engage in the process."

For those who may not be familiar with Panetta's c.v., he was President Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1994 through early 1997, during which time Clinton engaged in the process, rolled up his sleeves, and still saw congressional Republicans shut down the government -- twice.

It's almost as if having a president intent on avoiding crises doesn't much matter if far-right congressional Republicans are intent on creating crises. Presumably, Panetta saw this, up close, with his own eyes.

But the Beltway is still swooning because Panetta is playing by the rules and sticking to the script. It doesn't matter if the shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis are Republicans' fault; what matters is saying the opposite, whether it makes sense or not.

In this case, Obama engaged in the process and, in the hopes of avoiding a crisis, agreed to the spending levels Republicans demanded. GOP officials then said that wasn't enough -- they would need a greater ransom before agreeing to complete basic governmental tasks. Republicans wanted to gut the Affordable Care Act, but they were willing to negotiate over how many Americans would lose their health care benefits -- so long as some of them did, at least for a while.

The president was willing to roll up his sleeves, but not if it meant paying a ransom and encouraging more hostage crises. So Republicans shut down the government and may, just this week, refuse to extend the Treasury's borrowing authority.

What is it, exactly, that the Beltway would like the president to do? "Engage in the process" isn't a substantive answer. "Lead more" is a lovely platitude, but it's not a substantive answer, either.

Republicans freely admit they want to use crises as "leverage" to force Democrats to accept GOP demands. By their own admission, these congressional Republicans don't believe in compromise and won't tolerate concessions. They also won't keep the government's lights on; they don't see the harm in default; and they haven't passed a single major piece of legislation in three years.

Obama needs to roll up his sleeves? And then what?

These need not be rhetorical questions. The current crop of radicalized congressional Republicans have reached an ideological extreme without modern precedent. So what happens, specifically, after the president rolls up his sleeves?