Asked about his reluctance to say much of anything about the recent debt-ceiling agreement, Mitt Romney raised an odd observation last night.

“You know, this is a critical issue, which is, how big is the government going to be?” Romney asked, ignoring the question. “Back in the days of John F. Kennedy, the federal government took up, along with the state and local governments, 27 percent of the economy. Today, government consumes 37 percent of the economy. We’re inches away from no longer having a free economy.”

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Romney pushed a nearly identical line in his campaign kick-off speech a couple of months ago: “We are only inches away from ceasing to be a free market economy.”

It’s a bizarre idea, and Romney probably knows how deeply silly this is. But just in case, David Corn’s recent assessment got this just right.

Inches away? Is he kidding? Did Sarah Palin write this line for Romney?

Reporters should ask the former mandate-embracing governor of Massachusetts to back up this demagogic statement…. American automakers are in a much better (and more competitive) position, due to Obama’s rescue plan. (Romney opposed the use of federal money to save Detroit.) Corporate and bank profits have been soaring in recent months. And the stock market recovered from the losses brought about by the Bush-Cheney crash of 2008. If this be the end of our free market economy, titans of industry and investors may be tempted to embrace its demise. […]

The nation’s free market economy is not on the verge of extinction. (Oh, look, here come the collectivists! ) Romney must know that. Yet his willingness to utter such an extreme, fear-laden remark shows he’s eager to tap the paranoid, Obama-is-destroying-America sentiment rife within Republican ranks. You might even say that Romney has drunk the tea.

Now, obviously Wall Street has taken some serious hits since Corn wrote that earlier in the summer, but the larger point is still obvious: the notion that the American economy is on the verge of no longer being free — to be replaced with what, exactly? — is absurd. Either Romney is (a) much dumber than we’ve been led to believe; (b) convinced GOP voters are easily fooled and he’s shamelessly lying to them, assuming they won’t know the difference; or (c) five consecutive years on the Republican presidential campaign trail have driven him to madness.

Which is it, Mitt?

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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.