WHEN A PARTY PLAYS MAKE-BELIEVE…. Going into their convention, the Republican Party faced a rather daunting challenge. The nation wants change, and a conservative Republican president has been in office for eight years. He’s failed miserably, and the former head of the NRCC recently compared the Republican brand to dog food. It’s similar to the predicament facing the party in 1992.

What to do? If the last couple of nights are any indication, the GOP has decided to simply pretend that they haven’t been in power for most of the decade.

Three days into the Republican National Convention, it is clear that the G.O.P. has settled on a message: “Washington is not working.” The phrase is included in virtually every speech and every statement in St Paul.

We agree completely that Washington is in desperate need of renewal and reform. We’re not even going to quibble about the fact that Barack Obama said it first. The problem is that American voters have yet to hear — from John McCain or his warm-up acts — any serious ideas on what, exactly, is wrong with Washington, apart from the fact that a Democrat might win the White House, never mind how to truly fix it.

The difficulty for the Republican ticket in talking about change and reform and acting like insurgents is that they have been running Washington — the White House and Congress — for most of the last eight years.

Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee, was a combative and witty relief at a torpid convention. But it was bizarre hearing the running mate of a 26-year veteran of Congress, a woman who was picked to placate the right-wing elite, mocking “the permanent political establishment in Washington.”

And we couldn’t imagine what Mitt Romney was thinking when he denounced “liberal Washington” and then, at the convention of the party that brought you unimpeded presidential spying, declared: “It’s time for the party of big ideas, not the party of Big Brother!”

Watching the speeches, and the contortions Republicans have to go through to avoid mentioning the current president (and ostensible head of their party), it’s like getting stuck in a “Twilight Zone” episode. The multi-millionaire former mayor of New York railed against “cosmopolitans.” The multi-millionaire, Harvard-trained, former governor of Massachusetts railed against “eastern elites.” Just 48 hours after the party’s nominee insisted the convention would be less partisan, we’re bombarded with the most ugly and nasty partisanship of any party gathering in years.

Welcome to The Ironic Convention, 2008.

At one point last night, Romney argued, “We need change all right — change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington!” It was a fairly common sentiment. I have this nagging urge to put a post-it note on the convention podium that reads, “Psst, Republicans, you’ve controlled the White House for eight years, and Congress for six of the last eight years. You’ve humiliated yourselves and discredited the conservative governing philosophy forever. Love, Steve.”

Seriously, what’s the message of the week in St. Paul? That Republican governing works? No. That Republicans have a legitimate policy agenda? No. That the next four years should be different from the last eight? No. It’s simple: “Your house may be on fire, but don’t trust that man standing outside with a hose, because he doesn’t share your values.”

In this sense, this convention is just like the one from 1992, with Republicans pretending that they haven’t been in charge, and blaming Democrats for the Republican failures in the most divisive, pathological way possible.

Who’s buying this nonsense?

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.