Ms. Piggy

McCain’s campaign perfects its outrage over sexism.

Barack Obama

All campaigns must change in order to handle the arrival of a vice-presidential candidate. To accommodate Sarah Palin, John McCain’s Straight Talk Express has now installed a fainting couch. It’s not for the vice-presidential candidate—she’s plenty tough—but for McCain aides who are rapidly perfecting the act of expiring on the cushions on her behalf at every sign of perceived sexism.

Click on the player below for Obama’s response to the McCain campaign:

Tuesday night they turned in a spectacular performance. Barack Obama used the expression “lipstick on a pig” to refer to McCain’s new pitch as a change agent in Washington. “You can put lipstick on a pig,” he said as the crowd cheered. “It’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It’s still gonna stink. We’ve had enough of the same old thing.”

The McCain campaign reacted to the remarks with emergency umbrage. A conference call was ordered for 7 p.m. Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, the newly minted chair of the “Palin Truth Squad,” told reporters she was offended at Obama’s attack on Palin. She couldn’t explain how Obama’s general attack was a personal one aimed at Palin but asserted it was just obvious. She also took offense on behalf of her children. She may have even put her hand to her brow, but it was a phone call, so I couldn’t tell. (Note: If it had been a man on the call, I also would have used this expression because of the silent-movielike theatricality. I believe that this gesture is gender neutral, but if you have another one, drop us a line and we’ll fix it.)

The McCain team’s hypersensitive and highly managed approach to the new vice president offers up yet more signs of just how far the Republican nominee has come from his freewheeling days. McCain, once one of the most accessible politicians in modern times, has essentially hidden his vice-presidential pick from the press since her selection. Palin’s performances are highly scripted, and the campaign that once rightly criticized bloggers for taking McCain’s every utterance out of context has now perfected the blogger’s quick trigger of outrage.

If McCain is going to get tagged for his every slip of the tongue, his aides have determined, he might as well do the same and get some political benefit. Earlier Tuesday, when Obama had referred to Palin as a “governor, mother, and moose shooter,” the McCain campaign instructed its Iowa Sportsmen for McCain co-chairman to proclaim the remarks an outrage to hunters. The strategy seems to be working. Whenever the press tries to question Palin, it’s used as a foil to stir the Republican base; charges of sexism keep team Obama off-balance.

It was obvious that Obama wasn’t talking about his opponent’s running mate, as Gov. Mike Huckabee pointed out on Fox News: “I’m going to have to cut Obama some slack on that one. I do not think he was referring to Sarah Palin.” It also turns out McCain himself is a fan of the “lipstick on a pig” expression. He even used it last fall to describe Hillary Clinton’s health care plan—a nearly parallel construction. (Watch McCain use the phrase  on Slate V.) But these two pieces of information don’t obscure the fact that Obama is in a bit of a fix. His campaign will now spend a day adjudicating this pig business, which is another day he’s not talking about something else. (In an effort to keep the ball bouncing, the McCain campaign produced a video called “Lipstick,” further bending Obama’s meaning.)

This matters politically for Obama because the Palin pick appears to have helped McCain for the moment with women voters. In last month’s NBC/WSJ poll, Obama was leading McCain by 14 points among female voters. In the most recent poll, he’s up by just four points. Among younger women (ages 18-49) Obama was up by 20 points; now McCain is ahead by three. And last month, Obama held a one-point lead among white women; now McCain is up among them by 10.

Obama should have known better than to use the pig line. Clinton loyalists staged a nearly identical public chest-clutching when his adviser Samantha Power was caught calling Clinton a “monster.” Plus, Obama, like McCain, has perfected the art of taking quick and flamboyant umbrage on the least little evidence. A month ago he proclaimed the McCain campaign had attempted to use his race against him when there was less evidence this was the case than McCain has now.

It’s not clear what Palin thinks of the lipstick remark or the campaign’s nine-alarm ire. She’s spoken only to People magazine since she was selected. She’ll sit down with ABC’s Charlie Gibson later this week for a set of interviews designed around her son’s deployment ceremony, and perhaps he’ll ask her. She once spoke at length about the ways in which Hillary Clinton’s whining about sexism had hurt all women everywhere, so perhaps it rankles that it’s being claimed so frequently on her behalf. She seems like the kind of woman who can defend herself. She might even think making such a fuss to protect her is sexist.