One of the central, driving questions in our politics is this: Why are people who are themselves reliant on government programs so prone to electing anti-government politicans who want to put them on the chopping block?

Paul Krugman talks to experts about this conundrum and comes away with some important conclusions that are directly relevant to this year’s presidential race:

Cornell University’s Suzanne Mettler points out that many beneficiaries of government programs seem confused about their own place in the system. She tells us that 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 percent of those on Medicare say that they “have not used a government program.”

Presumably, then, voters imagine that pledges to slash government spending mean cutting programs for the idle poor, not things they themselves count on...

The message I take from all this is that pundits who describe America as a fundamentally conservative country are wrong. Yes, voters sent some severe conservatives to Washington. But those voters would be both shocked and angry if such politicians actually imposed their small-government agenda.

Campaign 2012 will turn on this fundamental point. And as it happens, you can actually look at polling data to gauge whether this is true. A recent National Journal poll found that when respondents are asked about specific programs, huge majorities don’t think Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid should be cut at all to pay down the deficit. A majority even said food stamps and housing vouchers for the poor shouldn’t be cut at all, either.

An important related point is that the primary role of the safety net is changing in the wake of the Great Recession: It’s shifting from ministering to the very poor to “maintaining the middle class from from childhood to retirement.” In an election that’s expected to be about the values embedded in our fiscal priorities and the proper role of government in protecting Americans against the vagaries of the free market, this could shift the political calculus in untold ways.

* Romney’s love/hate relationship with government: Relatedly, a nice scoop from Rosalind Helderman about Romney, who regularly inveighs against government intervention in the economy and who wrong it is for government to pick “winners and losers”:

Romney has a complicated relationship with federal funding. As the head of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, he led an aggressive effort to win hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid for the struggling Winter Games. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney requested millions in federal earmarks for state transportation projects. He once boasted about his prowess at winning taxpayer money.

“I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t always ask for federal money whenever I got the chance,” Romney joked in 2006...

The DNC is already out with a new Web video deriding Romney’s “Olympic bailout.” One assumes Santorum may grab on to this as well, to advance the point that Romney isn’t as ideologically hostile to government as he pretends to be, which is apparently a big liability aong GOP primary voters.

* Why Romney’s tear-down of Santorum may fail: Michael Gerson offers the conservative view of Santorum’s appeal and explains why he may not meet the fate of the other not-Romneys. Key point: Romney has tried to sully Santorum’s conservative insurgency by painting him as a Washington insider, but these may fall flat because Sanorum’s “crimes against conservatism pale in comparison to Romney’s own.”

Romney can’t question whether Santorum’s culture warmongering makes him unelectable, because that reminds people of his own social liberalism. And Romney’s dilemma deepens.

* Payroll tax cut faces cliffhanger vote in the Senate: The House is set to pass the bill today extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, but Senator Mitch McConnell is still silent on the plan, meaning it may be heading for a very close vote in the Senate, where its passage is anything but assured.

With a handful of Senate Dems breaking with the plan, it needs a dozen Republicans to pass, and Dems are already laying the groundwork to blame failure on McConnell, should he fail to privately signal to Senate Republicans that they should vote Yes.

Nothing really at stake here except, you know, the pace of our national recovery.

* Elizabeth Warren keeps hitting Brown over Blunt amendment: The battle continues: Warren slams Brown as “shameful” for invoking Ted Kennedy’s name in defending his support for a measure allowing for the denial of health coverage on the basis of moral objection alone .

Warren points out: “Senator Kennedy said he believed in having a space for the religious groups to have a conscious exemption, which is exactly what President Obama gave them.” Brown’s false insistence that the Warren/Obama position represents an assault on religion reflects the GOP’s continuing desire to drag this fight on to old culture war turf.

* Brown surging past Warren? A new Suffolk University poll finds that Brown has opened up a nine-point lead over Warren, but as The Hill notes, it’s not clear whether the poll is an “abberation.”

Indeed, a WBUR poll earlier this week found Warren up three, a statistical tie.

* Back to the 1950s on women’s rights: In case you missed them, Evan McMorris-Santoro wraps up the extraordinary events of yesterday — the House GOP’s contraception and religious freedom hearings; the Santorum donor’s aspirin-between-the-knees quote — and concludes that conservatives in America have “turned the clock back to the 1950s with their rhetoric women’s rights.”

What do smart Republican strategists who are in the business of winning elections think about this stuff?

* What didn’t happen at the contraception hearing: No women spoke during the first installment of yesterday’s House religious freedom hearing, but Sarah Kliff caught up with one woman who was set to testify.

A student at Georgetown, where birth control isn’t covered, Sandra Fluke would have told the all-male panel what it’s like to have to decide between the quality of your education and the quality of your health care.

* CNN’s awful polling on contraception: Senator Roy Blunt and other conservatives are promoting a CNN poll that supposedly finds Americans oppose the contraception coverage mandate by 50-44.

But the vague question wording doesn’t even define the policy for respondents, and it suggests that the policy involves religious institutions without explaining that it specifically exempts them. Just terrible.

* Birth control a Terri Schiavo moment? An important reminder from Steve Benen:

Remember, when the Schiavo affair first began to unfold, Republicans were certain this would be political gold, and encouraged GOP officials to embrace the controversy with enthusiasm. Likewise, there are probably ample memos circulating in Republican offices about the value in attacking contraception this election year, gender gap be damned.

The party got the Schiavo matter wrong.

Indeed, conservative groups are already gearing up for this fight in the belief that it will be good politics for them against Obama.

* And another day, another Romney dissemble: This one is so good. Remember that light-hearted ad that Rick Santorum aired featuring a plutocratic Romney firing mudballs at a cardboard cutout of Santorum? Romney is now calling it the most negative ad of the cycle.

Friendly reminder: Romney and his Super PAC are outspending the Santorum camp by at least 29 to one this week, and the ads all that cash is funding aren’t exactly fluffy and positive.

What else?