Matthew Zeitlin has a nice New Republic post on the Romney “corporations are people” clip and the very real “hack gap” between Democratic and Republican parties.

The title of my own comment on this imbroglio, Separating the wheat from the gaffe, telegraphs my view. What Romney said is obviously true, and everyone who thinks seriously about economic policy understands it. Taxes on corporations fall on the owners of corporations and on other stakeholders. On the specifics, this particular attack on Romney is devoid of substance.

Of course, that clip furthers the (accurate) general narrative of Romney as overly concerned with corporate interests at the expense of ordinary people. This leads to Matt’s interesting comment:

A good way to understand what’s going on is to understand the longstanding liberal complaint that conservatives have a media and intellectual infrastructure entirely devoted to the cause of advancing conservative ideas and attacking those politicians and public figures who oppose conservative ideology. Liberals, on the other hand, have the mainstream media, which is largely composed of liberal-leaning individuals, but which is not entirely and solely dedicated to promoting the liberal political cause in the same way the interlocking web of conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, publications, radio shows, and televisions stations are.

Think Progress’s continued flogging of one video clip of Mitt Romney saying “corporations are people, my friend” is exactly the type of thing liberals complain about when conservatives do it to liberals. The clip was plucked from CSPAN, aggressively promoted by Think Progress, reported on by mainstream outlets, turned into an ad for the DNC, and then, on Monday, promoted by Think Progress again in an effort to keep the controversy alive and, through repetition, make Mitt Romney seem like the “corporations are people, my friends” guy.

This is exactly right, and I confess that I’m ambivalent about it.

Some of my ambivalence reflects a certain nostalgia rooted in a unique moment. The 2008 Obama campaign was a sweet experience. A big reason for this sweetness was that Obama fought and won following a classy playbook. I and most others who helped had little interest in trashing Sarah Palin’s family or tracking rumored infidelities or the life challenges of a candidate’s wife. That wasn’t the vibe. Of course, it wasn’t all gauzy music videos. Every ad didn’t get a perfect score from Politifact. By and large, though, we could be really proud of what was won, and the way that we won it.

Of course, we were ahead and had the political and economic fundamentals in our favor. Bare-knuckle tactics and personal attacks were unnecessary and were contrary to Obama’s message and to his brand identity. We could feel morally superior to the McCain and the Clinton campaigns, They indeed fought dirtier, in part because they fought from behind over a long and difficult political season for them.

Taking that Romney clip and running with it is not political hackery. It’s the normal stuff of campaigning: the use of comments and film clips to present and reinforce a consistent narrative. It’s much less offensive than (say) Romney and Perry’s refrain about how we need a president who loves and understands America.

The next election will not be the same sweet experience as 2008. It will be a rough campaign against Republicans who have lots of corporate dollars, and the economic winds at their back. They have spent the last 39-some months trashing the president by any means necessary. As far as I can tell, Republicans pay very little political penalty for blatant dishonesty—or for dog-whistle rhetoric about how the president is less American, less white, less Christian, and thus less legitimate than they are. If we had better news media and a less-knuckleheaded electorate, the process would be more honest, less boring, and certainly less depressing to watch.

This election greatly matters to tens of millions of people who need jobs, help with their mortgages, health insurance coverage, a fiscally responsible progressive system to finance American government, and more.

This will be a bare-knuckle fight. We’ll have to be tough because winning is important. We’ll have to be true to ourselves, too, without creating our own mirror-image of the FOX-RNC propaganda apparatus. That’s not who we are.

There will be genuine dilemmas, ethical and practical. I’m not looking forward to this campaign, but there we are.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.