The most incisive reaction to Mitt Romney's disparaging comments about 47 percent of us came from a conservative friend who emailed: "If I were you, I'd wonder why Romney hates America so much."
A bit strong, perhaps. But the more you think about what Romney said, the more you wonder how he really feels about the country he wants to lead.
What kind of nation are we if nearly half of us are lazy, self-indulgent moochers who will never be persuaded to mend our ways? "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," Romney said, thus writing off a huge share of our citizenry.
From his perch high atop the class structure, Romney offered an analysis of political motivations that even Marxists would regard as excessively materialistic. He speaks as if hardworking parents who seek government help to provide health care for their kids are irresponsible, that students who get government aid to attend community colleges are not trying to "care for their lives." Has he never spoken with busboys and waitresses, hospital workers and janitors who make too little to pay income taxes but work their hearts out to "take personal responsibility"?
In defending himself on Fox News on Tuesday, Romney only deepened his difficulty. "I think a society based upon a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that's the wrong course for America," he said.
Put aside that if President Obama wanted a "government-centered nation," the stock market wouldn’t have doubled, making many in Romney's Boca Raton audience richer. In his impatience with those he accuses of casting themselves as "victims," Romney misses the real story of government in the lives of most Americans. So often, we combine our own exertions with a little assistance along the way -- the GI Bill, student loans, Social Security survivors' benefits, public education -- to become self-sufficient and independent.
And Romney said not a word about all the redistribution upward in a tax code that favors investment over labor income. That's why Romney pays federal taxes at a much lower rate than many in middle class -- and why, given his stress on the importance of paying income taxes, he might usefully release a few more of his own tax returns.
Romney's statement has been widely compared to Obama's private 2008 comment about working-class people who "cling to guns or religion." I disliked that line, and as a church-going supporter of gun control, always bristle at the too-easy conflation some liberals make of "God" and "guns." But Obama’s defenders have been correct in noting that he got a big thing right that Romney got wrong: Most of Obama's observations were empathetic toward blue-collar Americans who "feel so betrayed by government." His whole point was the need to reach out to, not write off, a constituency that had not embraced him.
Many have already written wisely about how Romney's original statement got the facts wrong, notably about how many Americans actually pay federal taxes and how a large share of those who don’t are retired.
But here's the most important point Romney got wrong: Among the wealthy nations, it’s difficult to find one where people work harder than the United States. In a 2005 New Yorker article (written before the downturn), James Surowiecki noted that compared with Europeans, "more people work in America, and since they work so many more hours, Americans create more wealth." Yes, the riches enjoyed by the folks at that Boca Raton fundraiser were made possible in significant part by the strenuous efforts of proud, self-sufficient people, including many in the 47 percent.
Romney misses something else about America: We do believe in a certain amount of "redistribution" toward those in need. We have always rejected what one of our leaders called a "destructive mindset," which he defined as "the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved," an approach with "no nobler purpose than ‘Leave us alone.'"
That would be George W. Bush in 1999, as my colleague Mike Gerson reminded us the other day. Bush added: "Yet this is not who we are as Americans. We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws. ... Our national character shines in our compassion."
Yes, it does, even if the Boca Raton Mitt Romney seems not to appreciate that about us, either.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).