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The Hypotheticals

We stood in the hallway near the Senate chamber as I asked the senior GOP aide a tactical question about legislative strategy in 2013.

"But how would that work if your side wins the Senate?" I queried.

The aide ignored the premise of my question and offered a stern correction.

"Chad, it's when we win the Senate," he said flatly.

And Republicans weren't just expressing confidence in capturing the Senate. The GOP has shown remarkable pluck about Mitt Romney's chances for winning the White House, too. Examine these postulates at a forum involving House conservatives last week on Capitol Hill.

"President Romney is going to have a very, very busy afternoon on January 20th," said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA).

Check out Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) when discussing why the GOP Congressional leadership was willing to write a temporary government operating bill at spending levels that far exceed those advocated by many conservatives.

"Part of the theory is that we can pass this at this figure now. Or then we'll have the majority in the Senate and the House and the White House. And then there'll be the opportunity for the Romney Administration to come in and do some sort of recessions on this," said Garrett.

At the same confab, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) added that conservatives were "willing" to agree to the higher spending figure "that got us into the next year in what we hope will be a Romney Administration."

Then Garrett described one scenario confronting "the Romney Administration" on tax policy. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) questioned how wise it was to conduct a lame duck session, potentially with a "president who may be in a lame duck status. A (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid (D-NV) who will be in a lame duck status."

A little later, a reporter asked the assembled lawmakers to handicap the chances for renewing tax credits for wind energy later this year.

"Tell me how you see that playing out in a post-November session," requested the reporter.

At first, none of the GOP lawmakers weighed in. Until Rep. Jeff Landry (R-LA) finally took the bait.

"I'm just amazed at all of your all questions when all of them are completely speculative," replied Landry. "It would seem that these questions would be more substantive after November the sixth when we would have a tremendous amount of certainty in how the new Congress and hopefully a new administration would look. So to answer something like that puts us in a peculiar position because it's speculative."

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Jeff Landry is right. Those questions are "speculative" and hard to answer without knowing which party will control the House or Senate and who will occupy the White House. Republicans certainly have an edge at retaining the House. The Senate and the presidential sweepstakes are toss-ups at best.

But for 2012 and 2013, Republicans long ago adopted a "speculative" legislative and electoral strategy. It was derived from the premise that the GOP would retain the House while returning the Senate and White House to Republican control.

And until the election, Washington languishes in a legislative torpor, unable to settle key disputes involving taxes, arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts, increasing the debt limit and breaking an impasse that's stymied a farm bill and a measure to reform the struggling U.S. Postal Service. It's almost as though certainty about the election results has produced an interregnum of uncertainty until November.

The GOP has traveled this road before.

The Republicans' gambit a few months ago held that the Supreme Court would overturn the Affordable Care Act and rule the mandate entailing Americans purchase health insurance was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruled otherwise and the GOP retooled its strategy.

That's to say nothing of Republicans who keep expecting separation between their candidate and President Obama.

First it was supposed to come after Romney asked Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) to join the ticket. There was no bounce. Then there was the Republican convention in Tampa. It generated zero bounce. Meantime, Mr. Obama generated a small bounce after the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

Now the Republican mantra is wait for the debates.

But Politico points out that Gallup evaluated whether presidential candidates generated a bounce after the debates. Debates in 1984, 1988 and 1996 apparently did little to move the electoral needles.

Conservatives were downright giddy at Romney's selection of Ryan. In fact, there was anticipation that the House Budget Committee Chairman would manhandle a gaffe-prone Vice President Biden in next month's debate.

"Can you imagine how (Ryan) will dismantle Biden in the debate?" wrote one conservative source after Romney tapped the Wisconsin Republican.

How Ryan or Biden perform in the debate remains to be seen. But the Romney campaign has taken pains to temper expectations.

"Joe Biden has been in elected office for more than 40 years," said campaign spokesman Brendan Buck. "There are few people in politics with more experience debating the issues than Joe Biden, so we are taking this process seriously."

A few days ago, the Romney campaign announced that former Bush Solicitor General Ted Olson would portray Biden in debate prep for Ryan. Buck described Olson as "one of the most skilled, intelligent and successful litigators in America - just the kind of opponent needed to prepare the congressman for Mr. Biden."

So why all of this respect for Biden when the groundlings are anticipating a Shakespearean comedy laced with farce?

Could it be that the Romney camp is trying to lull the Biden camp to sleep? Or get Biden to "believe his own press?" Or climb into the vice president's head the way boxers try to do through press statements before the big bout?

Or maybe it's to remind the audience that "hey, Ryan went up against Joe Biden. He did well. But he's not as skilled as Joe Biden."

Republicans are banking on a lot. But so far, it's all just hypothetical.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) declared last week that he's "not confident at all" that lawmakers can sidestep the so-called "fiscal cliff" which is looming at the end of the year. The nation could drive off that cliff if lawmakers don't find a solution to the Rubik's Cube puzzle of mandatory spending cuts and tax issues.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) described Boehner's comment as "a really unfortunate statement" and characterized it as "immature, so irresponsible."

But Harry Reid expressed optimism despite Boehner's skepticism.

Reporters asked Reid why.

"I've been here for a while," Reid responded. He suggested things would be a lot different on Capitol Hill after the election - regardless of which party's in charge.

But, to paraphrase Jeff Landry, that's just speculation.

It's impossible to count how many questions politicians have refused to answer because it's based on "a hypothetical." But in this case, Republicans have teed-up an entire electoral and governing strategy based around a hypothetical. Politicians may refuse to answer questions about hypotheticals. But it remains to be seen whether journalists will refuse to report stories about them.