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The Delusions of Leon Panetta, High-Flying Veteran of This Town

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

The bar has been set pretty high these past few years for clueless hypocrisy among Washington elders offering bipartisan bromides to break the fiscal gridlock. But Leon Panetta just cleared it with a standing jump.

Panetta is the former congressman, Clinton Administration chief of staff and cabinet member who returned to Washington in 2009 to lead the CIA and two years later became Secretary of Defense. It was in the latter role that Panetta racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of costs to taxpayers with near-weekly flights home to Monterey, Calif. on a military jet—the flights cost $32,000 each, for which he had to pay only the commercial equivalent, $630; in the first nine months alone of his tenure he had taken 27 flights for a total cost of $860,000.

He explained the cost at the time as unfortunate but necessary. “It’s healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight,” he said in April 2012. “I regret that it does—you know, that it does add costs that the taxpayer has to pick up.”

You might think that running up that kind of taxpayer tab for what was, essentially, a transcontinental weekly commute would give one a sense of humility when it comes to holding forth about getting spending under control in Washington. But that would require a level of self-awareness that is in short supply in This Town. And Leon Panetta, for all his costly yearnings for Monterey, is nothing if not a creature of This Town, judging from his remarks at a Washington breakfast yesterday. Take it away, Ruth Marcus (emphasis mine):

He is a man who knows Washington and knows how to choose his words. So Panetta’s implicit rebuke of the president’s hands-off approach to the budget crisis at a breakfast Monday was striking. Indeed, implicit may be an understatement. Asked repeatedly whether he was being correctly understood as critical of President Obama, Panetta was careful to assert that “I don’t want to put it all on the president” and that there is “enough blame to go around.” But he did not spare Obama. “We govern either by leadership or crisis. . . . If leadership is not there, then we govern by crisis,” Panetta said at the start of the session, sponsored by The Wall Street Journal. “Clearly, this town has been governing by crisis after crisis after crisis.” Which raised the obvious question: What does this say about the president’s leadership? Several observations ensued. “This town has gotten a lot meaner in the last few years.”…

Then, to Obama. “This president — he’s extremely bright, he’s extremely able, he’s somebody who I think certainly understands the issues, asks the right questions, and I think has the right instincts about what needs to be done for the country.”  Next came the “but” — without a name but with a clear message. “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 . . . that’s what governing is all about.”

Bloomberg’s Al Hunt asked Panetta how Clinton would have handled the current situation differently. “We were negotiating up to the last minute in the Oval Office” before the 1995 shutdown, recounted Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff. “Some of us were nervous that Bill Clinton was bending over backwards to try to see if he could get a deal.” … “Just because you’ve engaged in some set of negotiations and they haven’t gone anywhere, for one reason or another there’s been a breakdown, is no reason to walk away from the table,” Panetta said. “In this town, you’ve got to stay with it. You’ve got to stay at it.” The solution, Panetta added, is not “some razzle-dazzle supercommittee or group of muckety-mucks from the outside world. That hasn’t worked. They are going to have to do it in the context of the conference of the budget.” Locked in a room, if need be, until differences are resolved, as happened with the 1990 budget summit at Andrews Air Force Base. “I spent three months at Andrews Air Force Base going through this crap,” Panetta recalled.

In other words: Lead harder, Mr. President.

Where to start with this? Countless commentators have noted the vast gulf between the circumstances that confronted Bill Clinton in 1995 and what Barack Obama is contending with today: chiefly, the willingness of today’s Republican opposition to hold hostage the government and world economy in an attempt to undo a major piece of legislation. Obama “rolled up his sleeves” and “engaged in the process” a whole lot back in the summer of 2011 and look what it got him: a last-minute deal that undermined the economic recovery and was followed by a decline in the nation’s credit rating and a plunge in his own approval numbers. Oh, and as for that 1990 budget summit that Panetta spent three months slaving away at? It played a not insignificant role in the creation of today’s hard-line congressional GOP, whose roots trace to the backlash against George H.W. Bush over the tax increases that came out of that summit.

In other words, the current standoff is long in the making, and to suggest that it could be averted if Obama simply tried harder at courting Republicans is simply magical thinking of the sort we’ve come to expect from the likes of Sally Quinn and Peggy Noonan. But coming from a hardened, famously profane veteran of the budget wars of the past two decades? There’s been a lot of speculation since 2008 about whether Democrats would’ve been better off with Hillary Clinton, who, the theory goes, would have had a much more clear-eyed view of Republican intransigence than Obama did coming into the White House. But if Panetta is any sign of the Clintonian mindset, there is no shortage of wishful thinking in that camp, either, even after what we’ve seen these past few years.

Marcus concluded her report of the breakfast on this note:

As to the notion that any proposal associated with Obama was inherently toxic to Republicans, Panetta said, “If the president, for whatever reason, feels he can’t do it because the Republicans don’t want to confront him, then he ought to be willing to delegate that responsibility to someone who can do it.”

I’ve got a stellar candidate in mind. His name is Leon Panetta. He seems awfully happy back home in Monterey, Calif. But he also remembers the way to Andrews—and what it takes to get things done once you arrive.

He sure does remember the way to Andrews: heck, maybe we can send a military jet to pick him up.