Editor's note: Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect and the author of "Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success." Follow him on his blog and on Twitter.
(CNN) -- It took until the presidential campaign was over, but Mitt Romney finally figured out the sinister plan Barack Obama executed to win re-election. Here's how it worked: During his first term, Obama craftily carried out policies that helped improve Americans' lives, thereby tricking them into voting to re-elect him. Diabolical!
OK, that wasn't exactly how he put it. But in a conference call with his major donors after the campaign ended, Romney attributed his loss to the fact that Obama gave "gifts" to various groups to win their loyalty. Young people, women, Latinos, African-Americans, all voted for Obama because he showered them with presents, he concluded.
"With regards to the young people, for instance, a forgiveness of college loan interest was a big gift," Romney said. "Free contraceptives were very big with young, college-aged women. And then, finally, Obamacare also made a difference for them, because as you know, anybody now 26 years of age and younger was now going to be part of their parents' plan, and that was a big gift to young people."
Romney's interpretation of the election results provides an apt footnote to his campaign, an encore performance of the infamous "47%" videotape. And that was hardly an isolated incident; you'll recall that Romney spent weeks attacking the Obama administration for supposedly eliminating the work requirements in welfare.
"You wouldn't have to work," said a Romney ad. "They just send you your welfare check." The claim was false, but it sent the message he wanted: Obama was the candidate of the moocher class, the leeches who wanted only to luxuriate in their unearned benefits while good people worked for a living.
But this idea didn't just occur to Romney out of nowhere. If in the last couple of years you've been listening to conservative talk radio, watching Fox News or even attending panel discussions at tony conservative think tanks in Washington, you've heard this analysis again and again. As the title of a recent book by a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute has it, we've become "A Nation of Takers," selfishly grabbing what we can while hoping someone else will pay for it all.
And since the election, one conservative after another has been complaining about those ungrateful Americans with their hands out. "There are 50% of the voting public who want stuff. They want things," said Bill O'Reilly on Election Night. "And who is going to give them things? President Obama."
Which brings us back to the word Romney used over and over on that phone call: "gift." Apparently, he believes that when the government works to ensure that everyone has access to health care, or that young people can afford to attend college, it's kind of like giving a kid a new Xbox -- he didn't need it, he probably didn't deserve it, but we gave it to him anyway so there won't be any tantrums for a while.
You might say that a guy who doesn't have an actual job, yet pulls in $20 million a year on which he pays 14% in federal income taxes because of how the tax system is so skewed in his favor perhaps should not be talking so contemptuously about the government giving people gifts.
But in the world that Romney and his wealthy donors inhabit, policies that benefit the upper class can't possibly be "gifts." Is eliminating the estate tax a gift? Heavens, no. It's just a way to encourage investment, which is good for all of us. Only benefits that accrue to the common folk are gifts, those undeserving masses gauche enough to send their children to public schools (another gift), who worry about finding insurance if they have a pre-existing condition, who think that clean air and water are things everyone deserves.
The truth is that we are all both takers and givers, at different times and in different ways. We pay taxes and we get benefits from government, both collective (such as national defense and clean air) and individual (such as Medicare). We take from our parents, then give to our children. We're individuals who make our own way, but we also live in a society where we depend on one another every day.
For all the pettiness and silly attacks we saw in this election, there was also a genuine and enlightening philosophical debate. Republicans tried to paint the nation as an Ayn Rand fantasy world in which there are only two kinds of people: the brave individualists needing nothing from anyone, and the blood-sucking parasites who rely on government. The voters took a look at that fantasy and decided it wasn't true.
But Romney still believes it.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Waldman.