This morning, Mitt Romney responded to the Obama campaign’s charge that he thinks we need fewer cops, firefighters and teachers by arguing, well, something:

“Well, that’s a very strange accusation. Of course, teachers and firemen and policemen are hired at the local level and also by states. The federal government doesn’t pay for teachers, firefighters or policemen. So obviously that’s completely absurd.

“[Obama’s] got a new idea, though, and that is to have another stimulus and to have the federal government send money to try and bail out cities and states. It didn’t work the first time. It certainly wouldn’t work the second time.”

Steve Benen counters:

Well, actually, the federal government can provide resources to states and municipalities to either hire new teachers and first responders, or prevent layoffs that would otherwise be made. If Washington would do this, we’d see an immediate drop in the unemployment rate, but Republicans refuse to even consider the idea.

That’s true, and I would add a couple more points. Note that Romney is decoupling the argument over whether we should spend more federal money specifically to stanch layoffs among cops, firefighters and teachers from the more general argument over whether we should spend more federal stimulus money on the states. Of course, these two arguments are over exactly the same thing! But Romney is simultaneously claiming that he couldn’t possibly be in favor of cutbacks to cops, firefighters and teachers, since they aren’t paid by federal funds, even as he’s claiming he opposes more federal money to the states, which of course would be used to ... protect the jobs of cops, firefighters and teachers who are getting laid off.

This underscores again why Romney's original cops/firefighters quote was so problematic and revealing. He singlehandedly reframed this debate as one over whether we should spend federal money specifically on protecting the jobs of cops, firefighters and teachers in order to help alleviate the unemployment crisis. Romney and Republicans need this debate to be about spending on generic Big Bad Government and parasitic bureaucrats, not culturally sympathetic figures Americans widely identify with and rely upon daily for their safety and the education of their children. That’s why Romney again tried today to obscure the accidental specificity of his original quote.

What’s more, Romney’s new pushback is undermined by quotes from his own surrogates. As Dems were quick to note, last night, Newt Gingrich flatly admitted that, yes, Romney’s prescription will in fact mean “fewer teachers.” And top Romney surrogate John Sununu recently defended Romney’s comments by claiming that taxpayers would, in fact, like to see fewer teachers in classrooms where there are fewer students, implicitly suggesting that this is what Romney’s policy would help accomplish. It’s hard to see how those defenses square with Romney’s claim that it’s “absurd” that he supports cutbacks to these jobs. The response here is completely incoherent.