(photo: Gage Skidmore)

If this is the first week of the 2012 general election campaign (as conventional wisdom seems to have it), it’s gotten off to the kind of funhouse-mirror start that, if nothing else, is consistent with how the Republican preliminaries went.

I mean, after Newt Gingrich’s championing of a permanent moon base and Rick Santorum waving around a chunk of shale, how much weirder is it for Mitt Romney to accuse President Obama of having “spent too much time at Harvard” when Romney himself earned not one, but two degrees from the same school?

But you don’t have to hear Karl Rove fervently stage-whispering to Team Romney from the wings to understand the strategy here.  Rove famously smeared Democrats as out-of-touch elitists when they were running against George W. Bush, so why not see if the same trick works against an incumbent president?  It’s the old “When all you have is a hammer…” joke come to life.

It’s also no surprise to see Romney accusing Obama of hiding his second-term agenda.  In classic Rovian fashion, it attempts to reverse the usual dynamic of running against a sitting president — a contest in which the incumbent traditionally benefits from voters’ comfort with a known quantity against an unfamiliar challenger.  In Romney/Rove’s fantasy, Obama can be transformed (with the help of millions of dollars in paid advertising) into a mysterious, risky stranger you wouldn’t trust with your future.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, there are limits to their ability to create political reality via commercials and rhetoric.  They found this out in 2008, when the economy turned so bad that even a relative newcomer (and a black one at that) couldn’t be made scarier than the prospect of another four years of GOP policies.

This was especially true when their opponent — then, as now — was just as lavishly well-funded as Republicans are used to being, and so couldn’t simply be drowned by negative ads.  And if the economy continues to improve, however marginally, all the self-consciously clever tactics in the world likely won’t keep Romney (who for the last several years has seemed determined to embody the concept of “generic Republican”) from going down as just another standard-issue, unmemorable challenger for the White House.