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Campaign on Empty

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Probably, John McCain and Sarah Palin will lose this election. Certainly, they deserve to.

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With a campaign designed more to play on insecurities than to promote ideas, McCain and Palin have practically framed Barack Obama's "closing argument" for him. "The question in this election is not 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' " Obama told an audience yesterday in Canton, Ohio. "We know the answer to that. The real question is, 'Will this country be better off four years from now?' " The Republicans don't even try to formulate an answer, and with Obama's lead growing by the day, it's hard to imagine what might turn things around.

An "October surprise" international incident might end up working against McCain rather than for him, given his all-over-the-map reaction to the financial crisis. The vaunted Republican get-out-the-vote machine looks almost puny beside Obama's next-generation juggernaut.

There's always race, of course, and we can't say with certainty whether there's some huge, hidden racist vote out there just waiting to emerge next Tuesday. My hunch is that race is already factored into the poll numbers -- that it has already been "discounted by the market," to use financial jargon that's fashionable these days. I believe that race is a subtext of Republican attack words such as "dangerous" or "socialist," and that it's the real substance of the attempt to paint Obama as unknown, mysterious, exotic and somehow alien. My guess is that voters who are responsive to this kind of coded appeal have already responded.

So we're not likely to see some kind of deus ex machina salvation for McCain, Palin and their down-ticket allies, and that's as it should be. It's not just that they have run a weirdly erratic campaign, bitingly sarcastic one minute, earnestly serious the next, uncertain whether to present McCain as a serious, experienced statesman or as a hypercaffeinated, overeager publicist for Joe the Plumber. It's not just that Palin, and let's be honest, should never have been allowed anywhere near the ticket -- and certainly not anywhere near those frocks from Saks and Neiman Marcus.

More damning is that when it could hardly be more obvious that Americans desperately want to change direction -- more than 80 percent tell pollsters the country is on the wrong track -- the Republicans offer nothing new.

That's a shame. McCain's repeated references to "maverick" have drained all meaning from the word, but it's true that he's an iconoclast with little reverence for Republican orthodoxy. Why he chose, in an election that was always going to be decided by independents and Reagan Democrats, to campaign on a platform of slavish devotion to Republican orthodoxy is beyond me.

On the economy, McCain offers some relief for homeowners facing foreclosure, but only within a context of classic Republican trickle-down economics. He wants to lower taxes on business and rejects Obama's plan -- raise income taxes for the wealthy and lower them for the middle class -- as rampant socialism. If you set aside the incendiary rhetoric about class warfare that McCain and Palin have been tossing around, basically what they propose is staying the course that brought us to this point of global crisis.

McCain makes much of wanting to get rid of congressional earmarks; everybody wants to get rid of earmarks, except the one that benefits his community or his industry. He proposes an across-the-board spending freeze -- during a recession? -- and then, in the next breath, proposes new spending. He overestimates the voters' tolerance for incoherence.

On foreign policy, once the centerpiece of McCain's campaign but now mostly an afterthought, McCain promises "victory" in Iraq and Afghanistan without telling war-weary voters how much more time, money or blood he will spend.

In choosing a running mate, McCain made an absolute mockery of his "country first" slogan and instead put politics above all other considerations. It suffices to note that the Anchorage Daily News -- the biggest newspaper in Palin's state -- endorsed Obama, saying that Palin was being stretched "beyond her range" and that she clearly is not ready to be "one 72-year-old heartbeat from the leadership of the free world."

It's hard to imagine that a McCain presidency could possibly be as scattered, irresponsible, uninspiring and intellectually bankrupt as the McCain campaign. It's even harder to imagine that Americans, at this crucial juncture, will take that risk.

The writer will be online to answer questions at 1 p.m. today. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.


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