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MILBANK: D.C. at its usual worst

Last week gave us a textbook case of why Americans hate Washington.

The nation was on the verge of a financial shock — an entirely avoidable shock that policymakers themselves set in motion — but all people in this town wanted to talk about was whether Gene Sperling threatened Bob Woodward.

This could not be more inside baseball if we were wrapped in white cowhide with red stitches.

Our tale, for those healthy enough not to follow capital prattle closely, begins last Sunday, when an op-ed by Watergate legend Woodward appeared in the Washington Post alleging that the sequester — the automatic spending cut that took effect Friday — was the Obama administration's idea.

Woodward turned up the volume Wednesday, when he said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that Obama was exhibiting "a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time" — widely interpreted as a Nixon reference.

Later that day, Politico published an interview with Woodward in which he implied that a White House official had threatened him. Woodward read aloud from an email from the anonymous official the phrase "I think you will regret staking out that claim."

BuzzFeed unmasked the threatening official as the diminutive economics adviser Gene Sperling. The full email exchange, which was then leaked, sounded rather less damning. Sperling, who had shouted at Woodward on the phone, had written a conciliatory email saying, in part, "I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim."

This set Washington abuzz, debating whether the White House invented the sequester (it did) and whether Sperling threatened Woodward (he didn't).

Lost in all the intrigue: That $85 billion in government spending was about to be sucked out of the struggling American economy, that everybody agreed the cuts were stupid, and that nobody in Washington was doing anything to fix the problem.

In other words, the only thing missing from the Washington debate was reality. As is usually the case, the calculations here were about small tactical wins — heedless of the concept that what Americans want are not skirmishes but solutions.

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