Both TNR’s Alec MacGillis and WaPo’s Dana Milbank have been asking a pretty obvious question this week: if, as the most political observers (other than yours truly) seem to think, Mitt Romney has “moved to the center” or “promoted a moderate agenda” or whatever, why are the conservative activists who own his party putting up with it? Does one good debate performance justify all sin and heresy now? And is the old “moderate Republican” heritage of winning elections “in the center” making an unlikely comeback, as the MSM so desperately wants it to do in order to make partisan-equivalancy journalism work?

Milbank decided to go right to the horse’s mouth on this, and asked Grover Norquist what he thought of Moderate Mitt. The answer was highly instructive:

“I hear all this as tonal,” Grover Norquist, the Republican purity enforcer and keeper of the antitax pledge, told me. Romney’s new pledge that his tax cuts wouldn’t increase the deficit, for example, could be honored simply by using an alternative accounting method, known as “dynamic scoring,” that conservatives favor. “You’re now in the general election and you’ve already convinced conservatives why they should vote for you,” Norquist said of Romney. “You’re now talking to undecided voters, who have a completely different set of issues.”

Milbank goes directly on to suggest that conservative commissars like Norquist have decided to give Mitt all the slack he needs. But read that second sentence in the quote up above once again: Grover is very specifically saying that if Mitt’s blood-pledge to the conservative movement to cut high-end taxes comes into conflict with the no-increase-in-deficits promise he’s making now, Mitt can just lie about it and go right ahead with the all-important tax cut. “I hear all this as tonal” means “it doesn’t mean a damn thing.”

MacGillis is a bit more careful than Milbank in conceding there’s anything much to Romney’s rhetorical moderation, noting it’s often just rhetorical (as with his implicit endorsement of workplace diversity and some sort of nonspecific interest in a path to citizenship for the children of undocumented workers, both of which were expressed in the second debate). But Alec figures “the leash” will be “snapped tight again” if Romney actually wins, while the impression of Romney moderation could prove useful as an excuse if he loses. That an interesting observation: movement conservatives may be playing a game as devious as Mitt himself.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.