Opinion writer

Even in a town known for its kabuki theater, this one takes the kimono.

“We want to avoid a shutdown,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“No one wants the government to shut down,” said House Speaker John Boehner.

“There’s no reason why we should have a government shutdown,” said President Obama.

If that were so, a government shutdown would have been averted weeks before it was. If negotiators were driven by logic, the possibility of a shutdown never would have arisen. Instead, they decided to go to DefCon 1 over a skirmish involving a fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget.

It’s enough to stir nostalgia for Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton. At least when they played shutdown brinkmanship, they did it over big stuff. The dispute over crumbs in the current year’s budget is particularly discouraging when you consider that the parties have yet to begun talks on future budgets — where they are trillions of dollars apart.

Friday night’s deal, reached with all of an hour to spare, was preceded by a needless, and reckless, game of shutdown chicken. The idea was to push things to the last minute, because any accommodation before then would be seen as surrender. “We didn’t do it at this late hour for drama,” Reid said after the deal was reached. No, they did it so late because both sides had an incentive to go to the brink: They were, as usual, rallying their ideological bases.

As Reid and Boehner met with the president Thursday evening, an e-mail from Guy Cecil, director of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, landed in the in-boxes of Democratic contributors. “Republicans — catering to each and every demand of the tea party — are intent on shutting down the federal government,” he warned. The e-mail linked to a form asking for credit-card contributions as part of the “Shut Them Down Project.” Wrote Cecil: “We need to raise $100,000 in the next 36 hours to call out the GOP extremists.”

Republicans justifiably protested the Democrats’ use of the shutdown for financial gain, but the Grand Old Party was up to its own tricks. Outside the Capitol, several Republican lawmakers encouraged Tea Party protesters who were chanting “Cut it or shut it” and waving pro-shutdown signs. “It’s time to pick a fight,” Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) told the crowd.

Blame for the brinkmanship should be liberally spread. At one point, Republicans rejected a deal that cut the budget by more than they originally proposed. The White House wouldn’t accept a short-term extension, even though it was largely consistent with administration priorities. And both undermined negotiations with trash talk.

“The Republican leadership has the Tea Party screaming so loudly in its right ear that it can’t hear what the vast majority of the country demands,” Reid told the Senate Wednesday morning.

“The president isn’t leading,” Boehner countered at an afternoon news conference.

Late Wednesday, Reid reported that “I have confidence that we can get this done” — only to rescind that the next morning. “I am not nearly as optimistic — and that’s an understatement — as I was 11 hours ago,” he proclaimed.

Just before that, Boehner was on “Good Morning America,” redrawing a hard line. “There’s no daylight between the Tea Party and me,” he reported.

The two couldn’t even agree what they disagreed about. Reid reported to the Senate that “our differences are no longer over how much savings to get.”

Countered Boehner: “There is no agreement on a number.”

Later, Reid accused: “There are people cheering for a shutdown.”

Then, Thursday night, the pair issued a joint statement saying they had “narrowed the issues.”

But by Friday morning, Reid was helpfully advising Republicans to “look in the mirror and snap out of it,” tossing in the word “shameful.” Boehner responded that “we’re not going to roll over and sell out the American people,” tossing in the word “damn.”

The Post’s Felicia Sonmez counted seven shutdown-related news conferences in seven hours on Friday. Democrats accused Republicans of endangering women’s health. Republicans accused Democrats of endangering the troops.

At one point, The Post’s Paul Kane attempted to draw back the curtain on the kabuki, pointing out to the speaker that each day followed the same pattern of brinkmanship.

“Oh, really?” Boehner replied. He assured Kane that “all of us want this to be finished.”

If only their actions had backed that up.