Jonathan Chait points us to a remarkable Mitt Romney interview with the Weekly Standard, in which Romney confirms that he intends to eliminate whole departments of the federal government. But he’s reluctant to tell us which ones, because so doing could be politically damaging:

Romney, ever cautious, is reluctant to get specific about the programs he would like to kill. He did this in his bid for the Senate 18 years ago and remembers the political ramifications.
“One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” Romney recalled. “So I think it’s important for me to point out that I anticipate that there will be departments and agencies that will either be eliminated or combined with other agencies. So for instance, I anticipate that housing vouchers will be turned over to the states rather than be administered at the federal level, and so at this point I think of the programs to be eliminated or to be returned to the states, and we’ll see what consolidation opportunities exist as a result of those program eliminations.
“So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now.”

Chait sees this as a moment of unintentional political candor, in which Romney is admitting that detailing specific plans for cutting government risks being unpopular. Americans always say they hate government in the abstract, but their anti-government zeal suddenly goes wobbly when specific progams are on the chopping block. So Romney is avoiding detailing specifics that could damage him in the general election.

That’s bad enough. But there’s still another layer to the rhetorical contortions on display here. Romney isn’t just refusing to detail specifics because he’s worried about hurting himself in the fall. He’s also trying to sell conservatives on the idea that he shouldn’t have to detail all the ways he’ll downsize government, because it will weaken him against Obama. Romney’s intended audience here is conservatives who want reassurances that he genuinely intends to pursue a major downsizing of government. He’s basically asking them to let him keep things vague (wink, wink) so Dems can’t use his promises against him.

Indeed, the writer of the Weekly Standard piece explains that his answer is another reason conservatives may be suspicious of him. What this really amounts to is a moment of unintentional candor wrapped up in more dissembling. Perhaps this is another promise to conservatives that can simply be Etch-A-Sketched away when the time comes.

There’s an alternate possibility: Maybe Romney really does know which departments he plans to eliminate, but doesn’t want to say so aloud, because he wants to preserve the ability to fool independents into seeing him as a moderate later, so he can get into power and carry out his true mission to hack government down to a fraction of its size.

Either way, Romney seems to be trying to dupe somebody. The only question is whom.