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Mitt Romney likes to say that this election is a battle for "the soul of America." He's right -- just not in the way that he thinks.

Romney asserts that President Obama wants to "fundamentally transform America," turning the country "into a European-style entitlement society." In fact, Romney and his Republican presidential rivals have a far more radical transformation in mind. They envision a dramatically shrunken federal government and a dangerously unraveled social safety net.

Theirs is not the self-styled compassionate conservatism of a George W. Bush. "It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need," Bush said in 2002. "It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results."

A decade and a tea party later, active help -- at least active help from the federal government -- is out of Republican fashion. Of course Republicans have traditionally favored state over federal involvement, but the degree of proposed retrenchment during the current campaign is remarkable -- and troubling.

Consider Romney's answer to a question at the last debate about the safety net in an age of austerity:

"Well, what we don't need is to have a federal government saying we're going to solve all the problems of poverty across the entire country, because what it means to be poor in Massachusetts is different than Montana and Mississippi and other places in the country.

"And that's why these programs, all these federal programs that are bundled to help people and make sure we have a safety net, need to be brought together and sent back to the states. And let states that are closest to the needs of their own people craft the programs that are able to deal with the needs of those folks."

Romney went on to tick off specific programs: food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid, emergency heating assistance.

"What unfortunately happens is with all the multiplicity of federal programs, you have massive overhead with government bureaucrats in Washington administering all these programs, very little of the money that's actually needed by those that really need help, those that can't care for themselves, actually reaches them," he said.

Nice talking point, if it were true. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has demonstrated, the major programs for the poor are extraordinarily efficient, even taking into account state as well as federal administrative costs. In 2010, 96.2 percent of Medicaid spending went for care; 94.6 percent of food stamp spending went for food; and 90.9 percent of housing program dollars went to rental assistance for low-income tenants.

Even for the man who ran Bain Capital, that shouldn't seem like massive overhead.

The more important point is the degree to which Romney & Co.'s back-to-the-states approach would shred protections for the most vulnerable Americans. Romney's observation about the differences between being poor in Massachusetts and Mississippi underscores the importance of a national safety net. Mississippi has more needs, and less money.

Imagine what would have happened during the recession if, say, food stamps -- now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- were a fixed block grant to states, as Romney envisions. Needs rose dramatically, but states, already strapped for cash, would not have been able to meet them.

Romney's plans shred the safety net. Making sure that doesn't happen is the real battle for America's soul.