In the days leading up to the first shutdown of the federal government in 17 years, journalists and pundits kept asking members of Congress: "What's the end game?"
By the time the lights went out, the answer was obvious -- the blame game.
On NBC's "Meet the Press" just days before the shutdown, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, acknowledged that Republicans were likely to get the bulk of the blame and suggested that Democrats understood this better than anyone.
"The reality is the Democrats think that this is a loser for us," Labrador said. "I think everybody agrees that this is a loser for us if the government shuts down. And that's why I think the president and the Democrats want to shut down the government."
I'll buy it. In politics, when your opponent is drowning, you give him an anvil. Democrats didn't seem to be in any great hurry to negotiate.
That is a sad statement on our political system. Leaders are elected to fix problems. Today, many elected officials simply fix the blame. For some lawmakers, that's enough. They don't need to feel good about devising solutions, or improving people's lives. They derive their satisfaction from the assumption that, when things go awry and the public doles out criticism, the other side will get a much larger share. Getting something done has taken a back seat to making sure the other side catches the flak if something goes wrong.
If the American people listened in on any part of the debate leading up to the government shutdown, they should have at least learned this much: Blame can be a potent political weapon, and these days it has too often become an end unto itself.
This time, the issue was the shutdown -- one that took effect when the House and Senate could not overcome their inability to reach a budget deal amid attempts by House Republicans to defund the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
Casting blame certainly isn't unique to this debate. In discussing immigration reform, Democrats -- including many who didn't want to provide illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship because it would upset blue-collar workers concerned about their jobs and because it would feed the perception that the Democratic Party is soft on illegal immigration -- bet everything on the assumption that, if talks broke down, Latinos and other reform proponents would heap most of the blame on Republicans.
The media, meanwhile, feed the frenzy by casting the issue as which party is most likely to get the blame and producing poll data that helps politicians plot strategy and manipulate the outcome.
In July, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey asked respondents who they would blame if Congress couldn't reach an agreement on immigration reform before the end of the term. The survey found that 44 percent of people would blame Republicans, while 14 percent said Democrats and 21 percent listed President Obama. Among Hispanics, the findings were even more lopsided. About half said that they would chiefly blame Republicans, while only 6 percent would blame Democrats.
This is fitting for those members of the GOP who pander to nativists, feed the public's fear over a changing culture, and frame immigration the way that it has been framed for much of U.S. history -- as a way of importing inferior people from inferior countries.
Yet, it also must be frustrating for those Republicans who want to achieve immigration reform, either because they want to provide workers to employers who also contribute to their campaigns or because they simply want to get the issue off the table and get back to courting Hispanics.
In the debate over defunding Obamacare, Republicans are once again cast as the villains. A recent poll by CNN found that 46 percent of Americans would blame Republicans for the shutdown, while 36 percent would blame Obama. Thirteen percent said both would be at fault.
What do you know? Despite all the noise, the 13 percent figured it out. The hard truth is that both parties are to blame for the government shutdown. Achieving this degree of incompetence takes a certain amount of bipartisanship.
You would think that constantly emphasizing who stands to catch the blame would create an incentive for those people to do the right thing. Instead, it pushes the other side to do nothing but sit back and watch their adversaries flounder -- while the American people suffer.
The blame game is one contest that no one ever wins.
Contact Ruben Navarrette at firstname.lastname@example.org.