There was a time when Republicans campaigned on their ideas, programs and values. This year — lacking ideas, programs or values — John McCain and Sarah Palin are running for the White House on an elaborate fictional narrative of victimhood. Their supposed persecutors are Democrats and the news media, and the aim of this whole charade is to keep Americans from talking about ideas, programs and values.

Every day, the McCain campaign brays anew with over-the-top indignation at “the outrageous attacks” on Palin’s family. The McCain people don’t cite specifics, because there are no specifics to cite. What newsworthy Democrat has ventured any personal criticism of Palin or any member of her family? What serious news outlet has done any such thing?

I hear McCain’s amen chorus screaming, “Lipstick on a pig! Lipstick on a pig!” But they’re well aware that Obama was unambiguously talking about McCain’s economic ideas, not his running mate. It seems incomprehensible that the McCain campaign would make so much noise about an allegation that clearly doesn’t hold a drop of water — until you realize that the noise is the whole point.

As long as people are talking about barnyard beauty tips, they’re not talking about substance. Any day spent arguing about meaningless ephemera is a small but significant victory for a campaign that has nothing to say.

It’s not in McCain’s interest to talk about the 46 million Americans who don’t have medical insurance; Obama has a plan to get most of them covered, while McCain promises a modest tax credit and his best wishes for good health. It’s not in McCain’s interest to talk about the economy; Obama wants to renew our sense of shared enterprise and responsibility, while McCain is happy to stick with the Republican philosophy of “I’ve got mine, suckers.” It’s not in McCain’s interest to talk seriously about the occupation of Iraq; Obama was prescient in calling for a withdrawal date, while McCain outdoes even George W. Bush in insisting that our troops stay where they are no longer even wanted.

The most important fact about the political landscape this year is that 80 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that McCain’s only chance of winning is to obscure the fact that on the issues voters most care about, he essentially proposes to stay the course.

So McCain stopped talking about experience and started echoing Obama’s mantra of change, change, change. No one is supposed to remember that when he was courting his party’s conservative base he bragged that in his Senate votes he supported Bush 90 percent of the time. Only the party faithful are supposed to be mindful of the fact that McCain is, like Bush, an actual Republican.

Running for and against one’s party at the same time is not an easy trick to pull off, however. The contradiction is too big to hide — it’s like a huge, lipstick-smeared Yorkshire boar wallowing in the middle of the room. At some point, people are going to notice it unless you draw their attention elsewhere.

That’s the function of the McCain campaign’s daily screams of feigned outrage. Creating the false impression that Democrats and journalists are unfairly attacking Palin serves another purpose as well: It helps create the impression that legitimate and necessary questions about her record — such as her one-time support for the Bridge to Nowhere or her history of seeking the congressional earmarks she now claims to reject — are somehow out of bounds.

To mix things up, sometimes the campaign pretends that McCain is the one being persecuted — for his age, usually. It’s all just noise, intended to drown out meaningful debate.

If you scream bloody murder every day, however, people eventually stop taking you seriously. News stories about the lipstick remark stated forthrightly that the McCain people were misrepresenting what Obama had said. At some point, these tactical lamentations become not worth reporting at all.

And there will be at least four key moments when the McCain-Palin campaign will be unable to avoid the issues. Obama and McCain will hold three debates; Palin and Joe Biden will hold one. The television audience for these encounters is expected to be enormous, perhaps the biggest ever.

Americans will be presented with a straightforward question. Do they want a Republican in the White House for four more years, continuing to take the country in the same direction? Or not?

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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