WASHINGTON — There’s something maddening about this presidential campaign. It has become irrelevant whether anything the candidates say actually makes sense. All that matters is how their words will “play” with voters who are presumed to be too stupid to realize that they’re the ones being played.

The nonsense du jour is the “proposal” by both Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton to suspend the federal gasoline tax. I put the word proposal in quotes because it’s obvious that neither candidate is serious about this. Both must know that it won’t happen, and both must know why it shouldn’t.

Actually, McCain might not understand why lifting the tax of 18.4 cents per gallon is a bad idea — remember, he has confessed that the economy isn’t his strong suit. I’d bet the ranch that Clinton understands, though. And before either campaign indignantly proclaims its candidate’s total sincerity, I’d like to see the legislation that either of these U.S. senators has introduced to suspend the tax.

I’m still waiting.

The price of gasoline is indeed one of the most urgent pocketbook issues facing a nation in which there are more motor vehicles than licensed drivers. Having to pay close to $4 a gallon is a real hardship for many Americans who have no other way to get through the day — commuting to work, picking up the kids, shopping at the grocery store — except by automobile.

Cutting the price at the pump, even by 18 cents, would help. But economists agree that suspending the gas tax wouldn’t have a prayer of achieving that goal.

What would happen? Well, we’re heading into the summer months, when consumption of gasoline always peaks — and when refineries are making just about as much gasoline as they can. If the tax were to be suspended, gas would cost less and people would want to buy more of it. Demand would rise, supply wouldn’t — and thus the price would ultimately go up. There’s no way on God’s Earth that consumers would end up saving anywhere near 18 cents a gallon.

What else would happen? The money from the gas tax goes into a trust fund that pays for construction and repair of highways and bridges. If the tax were suspended for the summer, the fund would lose $9 billion. That would mean less maintenance of potholed roads and rusting bridges — and no jobs for thousands of people who otherwise would have been hired on work crews.

What else would happen? All the rhetoric from McCain and Clinton about climate change would be revealed to be just so much hot air since their proposal would encourage people to drive more, thus spewing more carbon into the atmosphere. If climate change really presents a grave threat to the planet, one of the quickest and most effective ways of attacking the problem would be a dramatic increase in the federal gasoline tax.

The House Democratic leadership opposes suspending the gas tax, so the whole thing is moot — except perhaps as a case study in political cynicism: Say any damn thing you think the voters want to hear, even if you know it’s a terrible idea and won’t happen anyway. Psssst, voters: McCain and Clinton think you’re too dumb to catch on.

Barack Obama deserves credit for insisting that a gas tax hiatus would be wrong. But I can think of issues on which he, too, is quick to emphasize a crowd-pleasing policy but slow to mention all the messy, uncertain and possibly counterproductive ramifications. On how to proceed in Iraq, for example, I don’t think the candidates are being particularly honest about how painfully unpleasant it will be to withdraw (Obama and Clinton) or stay (McCain).

On Iraq, though, there are so many variables that each candidate’s best-case scenario is at least plausible. What gets me about the gasoline tax issue is that everyone knows the whole thing is a nonstarter. So why are we even talking about it? And why are we talking about how voters will react, if what they’re reacting to is imaginary?

This is supposed to be an election, not a casting call. If we vote on the basis of who can best play “populist-lite” — who can more convincingly furrow his or her brow in empathy with the struggle of “ordinary” Americans — then we’ll be electing an actor in chief, not a president. And we’ll get what we deserve.

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

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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